RALEIGH, North Carolina – The security firm formerly known as Blackwater armed some of its workers in Afghanistan despite U.S. military documents that prohibited them from carrying guns, said two former contractors who were fired after they were involved in a fatal shooting in the country.
Justin Cannon and Steven McClain said Thursday that they frequently asked superiors why the company distributed the AK-47 assault rifles without Department of Defense authorization.
"We were just told, 'Continue doing your job. Don't worry about it. That's above your paygrade,"' Cannon, 27, of Texas, said in an interview with The Associated Press. The men were involved in a shooting earlier this month that killed an Afghan and injured two others, and they recently returned to the U.S., saying they were cleared to leave after an interview with military investigators.
Blackwater, now known as Xe, has said the company's subsidiary, Paravant, fired the men "for failure to comply with the terms of their contract." McClain showed a letter detailing his termination, and it listed a violation of alcohol policy as the only specific reason for firing.
Both men said they weren't drinking and hadn't drank since arriving in Afghanistan in November. Their attorney, Daniel J. Callahan, said he believes the company is making up the alcohol issue so it can avoid scrutiny over contractors being armed.
"Blackwater's concerned about getting kicked out of Afghanistan as it got kicked out of Iraq," said Callahan, with Santa Ana, California-based Callahan & Blaine. "They're trying to use these four men as scapegoats."
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell declined to immediately comment on the accusations.
McClain and Cannon said the company issued weapons to the contractors even though they were supposed to train the Afghan National Army on other styles of weapons used by NATO forces. And they said the company told them to carry the weapons, even when they weren't training, and that it was no secret that they had the guns.
"These weapons pretty much went wherever we went," Cannon said. "If we go to the classroom, we take our weapons. If we go to the range, we take our weapons. If we leave the compound at all, we take our weapons."
They had the guns with them as usual on the night of May 5. The men said they had dinner with some interpreters and then went to drive them to a taxi stand several miles (kilometers) away. On the way, the men said a speeding vehicle slammed into the first car of their two-vehicle convoy, causing it to roll.
McClain, 25, of California, said he was hurt and that he and his passengers had to climb out of the sport utility vehicle's back window.
Cannon said the people in his Sport Utility Vehicle got out to help but saw that the car that had caused the accident had turned and sped toward them. Cannon said he and another contractor, Chris Drotleff, fired their weapons. He wasn't sure how many rounds were fired.
"At that point, the vehicle was the threat," Cannon said. "I thought I was about to get creamed by a 2,000-pound car."
The brother of one of the wounded Afghans has said the car was full of shopkeepers heading home from work and that the people in the vehicle misinterpreted one of the Americans hitting the car as an order to move.
A passenger was hit in the stomach and died two days later, said Shah Agha, whose brother Farid was driving the car. Farid was shot in the hand and another person was injured outside the vehicle, Agha said.
McClain said three of the men who were fired in the aftermath of the shooting have left Afghanistan while a fourth, Armando Hamid, is still there. Callahan had accused the company of holding the men against their will. But they said Thursday that Blackwater told them to stay but didn't physically detain them. They left the compound Saturday night.
Xe, which is based in North Carolina, dumped its brand name Blackwater earlier this year as it tried to distance itself from its operations in Iraq. The State Department is not renewing the company's lucrative security work in there, which comprises an estimated one-third of Xe's revenues.