Contractors in fatal shooting say they’re scapegoats

This car driven by a contractor was hit in Kabul, Afghanistan, which led to a deadly shooting.
Two U.S. security contractors involved in the shooting death of an Afghan civilian said they were pressured to say they had been drinking in order to protect the company’s contract.

“There was no question as to, ‘Were you drinking’ It was, ‘I know you were drinking, I know this happened,’ and then pretty much trying to force us into making a statement on that,” Steven McClain told CNN’s “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer” in a story to air on Wednesday. McClain and Justin Cannon were on their first job with the security company Paravant. The former U.S. military members were hired to help the U.S. Army train Afghan troops. McClain, Cannon and two other contractors, Armando Hamid and Chris Drotleff, were involved in a shooting in Kabul on May 5 that left an Afghan civilian dead and two wounded. The U.S. military is investigating. “If you can say that a guy was drunk, you just turned that into a personnel issue,” Cannon said. Paravant is affiliated with Xe, the new company name for the security contractor Blackwater Worldwide. Both Paravant and Xe are owned by Erik Prince. Xe company spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell told CNN the men’s allegations are false.

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“That did not happen,” Tyrrell said. “Their direction from the company was to cooperate with the investigation, and lying is not cooperating.” Around 9 p.m., on a busy Kabul street called Jalalabad Road, the contractors said they were driving their interpreters and a car slammed into one of their two cars. “Given the situation where we were, I immediately thought we were under attack,” McClain told CNN. The contractors got out to help their colleagues, and the vehicle that had struck the car did a U-turn and headed back at them, the men said. The contractors fired at the oncoming vehicle. “The car was coming at us. At that point we attempted to stop and immobilize the vehicle and we engaged it in small arms fire. And the car didn’t stop, it just kept going,” Cannon said. The incident spotlights the issue of the role and conduct of U.S. security contractors in Afghanistan. A similar issue arose in Iraq after a September 2007 confrontation involving then-Blackwater contractors that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. Blackwater lost its contract there after Iraq’s government refused to renew its operating license. The company then changed its name to Xe, and it continues to receive multimillion-dollar contracts in Afghanistan.

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The U.S. and Afghan governments have yet to work out which government or entity will oversee security contractors working in Afghanistan. An Afghan government official said the shooting case should be handled by the Afghan government. An Afghan Interior Ministry official, who declined to be named, told CNN he believed the four contractors should go before the Afghan court system. The United States will consider whether to refer charges to the Justice Department. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Christian Kubik said he does not know how long the probe will take. In the wake of the shooting, all four men lost their jobs with Paravant for violating the company’s alcohol policy. “Paravant hereby notifies you that it terminates your Independent Contractor Services Agreement based on your breach of the agreement, including but not limited to a violation of Paravant’s Alcohol Policy,” read a termination document given to McClain, who provided a copy to CNN. But McClain and Cannon deny they were drinking. “We feel that Blackwater wanted to shift the blame from Blackwater itself to these men as if they were acting on a lark,” said the men’s attorney, Daniel J. Callahan. “Off duty, with weapons, weapons of their own, and while drinking. And I think the intent is to use these men as scapegoats.” Callahan has been involved in another suit against Xe/Blackwater. The contractors said they had not been drinking and had not had a drink since their arrival in November. “I think that their main objective is to keep their business over there,” McClain said. “And so for them it’s a business move to make us the scapegoats in this.” The men contend that Xe is concerned about the unlicensed use of firearms. It is unclear if the contractors were allowed to carry weapons while working in Afghanistan. Cannon and McClain say they were not authorized and Paravant gave them the weapons regardless of Army regulations banning contractors from having weapons. “We had to sign for them [guns] with our name. They were a controlled item from the company. The rules of engagement said we were not allowed to use them until we felt an imminent threat,” Cannon said. McClain provided CNN with a copy of the letter of authorization for his job that showed no weapon would be provided. However, the document does not indicate it is not legal for them to have a weapon. The U.S. military is unclear whether the contractors were allowed to have the weapons. A spokesman said the issue is “not cut and dry.” “The contractors were not allowed by the original contract to carry weapons, but a local decision or memo may have provided them authorization or the perception of authorization,” Kubik told CNN. He said that issue is still part of the investigation, but would not talk about details. Paravant employees in Afghanistan are allowed to be armed depending on the task the contractors are hired to perform, Tyrrell said, though she declined to discuss the terms of the men’s contracts while the investigation continues. Weeks after the shooting, three of the four contractors left the country, Callahan said. Cannon and McClain are now in Los Angeles. It is not clear where Hamid is, though Callahan said he understood he was returning to the United States. The fourth contractor, Drotleff, made it to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and was brought back to Kabul by an Xe employee, said Callahan, who said he represents Drotleff as well. An Xe lawyer asked Drotleff to return to Kabul, and he is cooperating in the investigation, an industry source said. A security industry official with direct knowledge of the shooting case said Xe has no authority to clear Drotleff to leave the country. That authority belongs to the Army and the Afghan government, the official said.