In House hearing, Democrats assail Blackwater
By Brian Knowlton and John M. Broder | October 2, 2007
WASHINGTON: Guards working for a private American security firm in Iraq have an aggressive and sometimes reckless record - involvement in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005 - and their use by the U.S. State Department amounts to an expensive and perhaps indefensible privatization of the military, congressional Democrats said Tuesday.
But the head of the Blackwater security firm, Erik Prince, said his workers, operating in hostile and chaotic conditions, had been the victims of a "rush to judgment."
Representative Henry Waxman, the California Democrat who is chairman of a House committee that is studying the record of the firm in Iraq, said that companies like Blackwater amounted to an inadequately controlled private military force.
"If we don't have enough troops to do the job, then we need to get more troops," Waxman said at a hearing Tuesday of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Privatizing security services was "causing us problems with the Iraqi people," he said.
But Prince - commenting publicly for the first time on a shooting in Baghdad on Sept. 16 in which Blackwater guards have been accused of killing at least eight civilians - rejected the depiction of his employees as trigger-happy "cowboys."
The bottom line, Prince said, was that none of the State Department employees his company protects in Iraq, and none of the visiting dignitaries - including some of the lawmakers questioning him - have been killed or seriously hurt, while 30 of his guards have died.
Republicans, meantime, accused the majority party of lashing into the company as a proxy for an unpopular war. Pointing to the security firm's record of losing no one it protected, Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut told Prince, "Thank you for doing a perfect job."
Prince spoke a day after the Democratic staff members of the panel released a report saying that in most of the 195 incidents in which Blackwater agents had fired weapons since 2005, they had done so from moving vehicles without stopping to count the dead or assist the wounded.
Blackwater paid the families of at least two victims and sought to cover up other episodes in which Iraqis died or were seriously wounded, the report says. It says State Department officials approved the payments in hopes of keeping the shootings quiet.
In one case last year, the department helped Blackwater spirit an employee out of Iraq less than 36 hours after the employee, drunk after attending a Christmas Eve party, killed a bodyguard for one of Iraq's two vice presidents.
Waxman expressed concern that the State Department, by advising Blackwater on how much to pay the bodyguard's family, seemed to be "acting as Blackwater's enabler."
Prince said the employee involved was fired. "But we as a private organization can't do anything more," he said. "We can't flog him."
The report, based partly on Blackwater and State Department documents, describes a series of other incidents that at times depicted a force out of control. It harshly criticizes the State Department for exercising virtually no restraint or supervision of the company's 861 employees in Iraq.
Lawmakers pressed three State Department officials about this. "We demand high standards and professionalism" from private contractors, said David Satterfield, a special adviser on Iraq. William Moser, deputy assistant secretary of state for logistics management, said that the $400,000 annual cost of hiring a single private guard - which Democrats said was six times the cost of a soldier - was in line with what the department spends to post a diplomat overseas.
But Richard Griffin, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, faced skeptical questioning about why the department allowed the evacuation of the Christmas Eve shooter. "There was no reason for him to stay in Baghdad," Griffin said, noting that the case was referred to the Justice Department.
A clearly frustrated Waxman replied, "I see an effort to sweep this under the rug."
He directed Prince, 37, a former member of the navy Seals, not to discuss the chaotic Sept. 16 incident in which at least eight Iraqis died, since several investigations are under way.
But Prince had already done so in prepared comments made available earlier Tuesday. He said the incident occurred when a Blackwater team, supporting another after a large car bomb exploded near it, came under small-arms fire and began returning fire.
"Among the threats identified were men with AK-47s firing on the convoy, as well as approaching vehicles that appeared to be suicide car bombers," he said. Some attackers "appeared to be wearing Iraqi National Police uniforms." Iraqi Army officials have said they did not fire and some witnesses have said that the Blackwater employees fired on civilians.
The incident has unleashed enormous resentment in Iraq. It has put attention on the administration's widespread and unprecedented use of private guards in Iraq, and on Blackwater and its practices, criticized as reckless even by some members of the U.S. military.
Two other companies, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy, provide security services in Iraq. Blackwater has reported more shootings than the other two combined, but it also has twice as many employees in Iraq as their total.
The committee report cites shootings in which Blackwater officials filed misleading reports or tried to cover up shootings. It says Blackwater gunmen engaged in offensive operations alongside American military personnel in violation of their State Department contract.