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Gates To Review Blackwater's Conduct In Afghanistan

Erik Prince, who founded Blackwater and Xe

Erik Prince, who founded Blackwater and Xe

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will review allegations of serious misconduct in Afghanistan by the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater, the Pentagon has announced.

The decision comes after a top senator called on the Pentagon to consider blocking a potential $1 billion contract with the company, now called Xe, to train Afghan police.

The Pentagon said it shared the concerns of Carl Levin, the head of the Senate's Armed Services Committee, who last week said the Pentagon should consider Xe's "past deficiencies" in deciding how to award the contract.

In a letter to Gates made public on March 4, Levin said there was evidence of misconduct in a previous subcontract awarded to a Blackwater affiliate to conduct weapons training for the Afghan National Army.

Levin said the firm might also have made false official statements, misappropriated government weapons, and hired unqualified personnel with backgrounds that included assault, battery, and substance abuse.

But the Pentagon played down the chances of barring the firm from contracts, citing its rare technical expertise.

"They have a willingness to work in places that very few companies are willing to work," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. "So they provide a much-needed service and the ability to do it well."

Xe, which said it welcomed the review, is one of five companies eligible to compete for the contract to train Afghanistan's police -- a key task ahead of the U.S. forces' planned withdrawal by the end of 2011.

Blackwater was first hired to protect U.S. government staff in Iraq following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The security firm came under scrutiny after its guards killed 14 Iraqi civilians in a 2007 shooting.

A U.S. court decision in December to clear the Blackwater guards involved in that incident sparked outrage in Iraq.

Earlier this month, Iraq ordered 250 former and current staff of the company to leave the country within a week.

In January, two U.S. contractors working for a Xe subsidiary were arrested in Afghanistan on charges of murdering two Afghans in Kabul.

compiled from agency reports