Presidential Airways Wants To Fly Some More

By Marc Ambinder

An airborne affiliate of Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater, is one of the several companies that have submitted bids for a huge new special forces personnel contract in Afghanistan, government documents show.  (CORRECTION APPENDED: Xe sold Presidential Airways to AAR earlier this year.) 

In February, the Army Contracting Command based on Rock Island, Illinois sent out word that Special Operations forces in Afghanistan needed a fully integrated point-to-point airborne transport service for U.S. special operations forces in the war theatre, focused solely on low cost altitude air operations and cargo combination/passenger drops into Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. In English, this means that the contractee is supposed to pick people and equipment up, transport them to other facilities, or drop them, or their equipment, via parachute, behind enemy lines. Unmarked aircraft provide more operational security for the mission. (The U.S. has no official presence in Uzbekistan.)

The staff would be based at several U.S. airbases in Afghanistan. The contract would begin next year -- the year U.S. forces are supposed to be begin withdrawing from Afghanistan -- and could be extended as long as five years, according to the original proffer, which is posted on a government website.

Last week, the Army posted extensive, detailed information about the contract, which offers a unique window into how U.S. forces use contractors, even those with histories like Presidential Airways, which was featured in a CBS News "60 Minutes" segment in February and rebroadcast last night. In 2004, a Presidential Airways plane operating under the name "Blackwater 61" crashed on its way to Farah, Afghanistan. It had flown way off course, and its pilots had little experience navigating Afghanistan's terrain, and the plane lacked equipment to help searchers find its wreckage. At least one passenger survived the crash for several hours.  After the crash, the government suspended the company for a month. But then it awarded them another contract, under which military personnel are flown throughout the country today.

The newest contract supports both the Combined Forces Special Operations Component Command - Afghanistan, pronounced SIFF-SOCK-AY, and the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force- Afghanistan (CJSOTF-A). 

CJSOTF-A is the task force governing "white" special operations forces in Afghanistan, although black SOF units and task forces often use the white equivalent for administrative cover.

The Army's work order provides a list of the 30 locations that the planes will transport to and from personnel, including Bagram, Khandahar, the Sharana forward operation base in Patika, Afghanistan and Maimana, which serves as a base for missions near the Turkmenistan border.

The contract solicitation provides plenty of information about the precise activities that the contractor will carry out. It says, for example, that the aircraft must be capable of carrying fifteen passengers plus baggage per mission, enough for so-called "fire teams" -- shooters.

An accompanying security form notes that the contractors will be required to have access to communications intelligence and must possess at least a SECRET security clearance. Before missions, they'll be briefed by task force intelligence units. They'll be given one satelitte phone per plane, will have access to the secure Defense Switched Network (DSN) and the military SIPRNET for SECRET-level tactical intelligence.

Given the history of contractors' aircraft not being properly equipped, all aircraft must now be equipped with ELTs -- Emergency Locator Transmitters, which will allow search and rescue units to find downed planes more quickly. When operating missions, the contractor's operations center "will be required to maintain secure voice communications with the CJSOTF-A Operations Center," according to the document. On the day of the 2004 incident, a communications breakdown may have contributed to the delay in mustering search and rescue services.

Additionally, the Army notes that the contractor "shall be liable for all losses of any personnel regardless of cause and/or hostile acts." When Presidential Airways's plane crashed, they claimed that they were not liable for the losses. Then they tried to settle all claims in Islamic court, which would have held them blameless.

But in the detailed statement about requirements, there does not appear to be any guidelines about the training that pilots must receive before flying in Afghanistan, aside from assurances they they are FAA certified and have appropriate navigational equipment on board.

The Army will provide random inspections to make sure the contractors are performing their duties properly, according to another government contract.

Aside from Presidential Airways, other interesting companies have submitted bids, including Oregon-based Evergreen International Aviation, which has performed "cover" services for the CIA. It has worked extensively with the CIA in the past, and current operations have given rise to the notion that they function as the modern day equivalent of the agency's "Air America" front company, which was owned entirely by the CIA. (Evergreen is in private hands.)  In recent years, Evergreen has transported CIA personnel to and from remote sites in the Horn of Africa. It does not seem to have been involved in the CIA's rendition programs. It is among the companies who are secretly authorized to refuel and land at any U.S-controlled base around the world.

Then there's the "Defense Applications USA Corporation," which does not have a website and whose contact person has an AOL e-mail. Its address suggests a location literally down the street from Disneyland in California.

Herndon, VA-based DFG Global's website says virtually nothing about what it does, which means it does a lot of work for secret projects.

The contact e-mail is literally "info@dfgglobal.com." FMN International has a Pennsylvania Avenue address and, at least, a website that acknowledges the type of work is performs.


Thumbnail image credit: Wikimedia Commons

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/06/presidential-airways-wants-to-fly-some-more/58817/