WASHINGTON, D.C.—Robert Tappan, who joined Burson-Marsteller from the U.S. State Department in June as president of the firm’s operations in the Washington, D.C., area, has been advising controversial security company Blackwater as it deals with the fallout from an incident in which its employees appear to have opened fire on Iraqi civilians.
The firm’s link for Blackwater—BKSH & Associates, Burson’s government relations unit, was reportedly retained by the security company’s law firm, McDermott Will & Emery and Crowell & Moring—has led to criticism of Burson chief executive Mark Penn, who is also currently serving as chief strategist to Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign to secure the Democratic nomination for president.
Penn has been a lightening rod for Clinton’s critics in the past because of Burson’s corporate work, particularly what opponents characterize as “union-busting” activities, but the firm’s decision to work on behalf of Blackwater, a symbol of cronyism in Iraq and a source of frustration because of the antipathy its shoot-first-ask-questions-later reputation and ability to operate outside Iraqi or American law provokes among ordinary Iraqis, has attracted particular ire.
Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination., John Edwards, described Penn as “Clinton’s Karl Rove” in a statement last week, and told an audience: “We don’t want to replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats.”
In September, Blackwater guards were involved in a shooting in Baghdad that left 13 Iraqis dead. While the company says its employees acted in response to a “hostile attack” from “armed enemies,” the Iraqi government issued a report claiming that the Blackwater guards opened fire without provocation, and there were reports this week that U.S. military sources had confirmed the Iraqi version of events.
Burson spokesman Paul Cardasco issued a statement to media in which he confirmed that BKSH had helped Blackwater chief executive Erik Prince—a prominent evangelical Christian who is also a major donor to the Republican Party—prepare to testify to Congress. The firm’s temporary assignment has now ended, Cardasco says.
Tappan, who was deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the State Department before joining Burson, also spent six months in Baghdad as director of strategic communications for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. governing body that disbanded in June 2004.
Any ongoing role for Burson would be hindered by the fact that the State Department, which pays Blackwater to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq, has strict rules barring the contractor from discussing details of its work with the media.
As for the Clinton campaign, spokesperson Howard Wolfson made it clear that Penn had not done any work for Blackwater, and that Burson’s involvement had no impact on the Senator’s position on the issue of private contractors in Iraq. “Senator Clinton believes Blackwater must be held accountable for its actions and has laid out a detailed proposal to sharply reduce the number of contractors employed by the federal government by 500,000,” Wolfson told reporters. “She has repeatedly stated her concern that such contractors are not as accountable as federal employees.”