Milbank on Blackwater

How WaPo columnist distinguished himself

It’s hard to find anything new under the sun when cracking open the morning papers to read the accounts of Congressional hearings. Reporters dutifully quote the Congressmen and women asking questions, the witnesses giving answers, and toss in a few words from various outside “experts” to spice things up a bit.

That’s why Dana Milbank’s story about the testimony of Erik Prince, president of Blackwater, the embattled private security firm, in this morning’s Washington Post stands out. In his “Washington Sketch” column, Milbank, the Post’s “color commentator,” kinda like the paper’s version of Monday Night Football’s Tony Kornheiser, or maybe Ron Jaworski (hey, I grew up in the imposing shadow of Buffalo, NY’s Ron Jaworski Stadium), provides some interesting background to who asked the questions, while giving a hint as to why some lawmakers took it easy on Prince and others came at him harder.

Milbank notes, as most account did this morning, that Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee questioning Prince yesterday generally took it easy on him. While most reporters took this at face value, and simply relayed the play-by-play, Milbank lists how much the defense contracting industry—the State Department has paid Blackwater $833,673,316 since 2004, while the Defense Department has shelled out $101,219,261 to the company in the same time period—has given to various members of the committee over the years. Granted, political donations aren’t necessarily a direct reflection of which way a politician leans on any particular issue, but you would be hard-pressed to point out instances where a politician voted against his own economic self-interest.

While Democrats like Henry Waxman, who received $6,300 from defense contractors over the past seventeen years, and Elijah Cummings, “whose career contributions from defense interests tally a mere $1,200,” lit into Prince, Republicans like Tom Davis ($717,829), John Mica of Florida ($145,454), and Darrell Issa ($131,235) went easy on the Blackwater chief. In fact, they praised the guy, his company, and the contracting industry in general.

None of this is surprising, but it says a lot about the state of mainstream reporting that Milbank, by simply departing from the lazy, by-the-numbers account, elevated his coverage and told his readers something important about how government oversight works.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.