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Blackwater Chief Defends Security Work in Iraq

October 2, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Since a shootout in the streets of Baghdad three weeks ago that left 11 Iraqis dead, private security firm Blackwater has been under intense scrutiny, both in Iraq and in Washington.

The Iraqi government claims Blackwater personnel fired first; Blackwater officials insist their employees did nothing wrong. The Iraqi government demanded the North Carolina-based firm cease its patrols, and the company is under investigation by the Justice Department, by the Pentagon, and the State Department.

Today, Blackwater founder and CEO Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, appeared before the House Government Oversight Committee to defend the work his company does in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing security for State Department personnel and visiting U.S. officials. The company has earned almost $1 billion for that work.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D), California: Is Blackwater, a private military contractor, helping or hurting our efforts in Iraq? Is the government doing enough to hold Blackwater accountable for alleged misconduct? And what are the costs to the federal taxpayers?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Although last month’s shootings led to today’s hearing, the Justice Department asked that the incident not be discussed in public. Some Republicans also expressed concern that Blackwater was being unfairly singled out before any investigations have been completed.

REP. DAN BURTON (R), Indiana: I have no objection to this kind of a hearing. But what really concerns me is that there appears to be a rush to judgment, and I don’t think that should happen.

It’s going to be thoroughly investigated in Iraq by Iraqis and American officials. And until we get that, we won’t know exactly what happened, or who might have made a mistake, or who might have done something they shouldn’t have done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the committee’s majority staff yesterday released a scathing report on Blackwater based on internal Blackwater and State Department documents. It found that: Blackwater guards in Iraq have been involved in at least 195 escalation-of-force incidents since 2005, an average of 1.4 shootings per week; that Blackwater fired first 80 percent of the time, even though its State Department contract allows use of force for defensive purposes only; and that Blackwater has terminated 122 employees in Iraq, 28 for weapons-related incidents, 25 for drug and alcohol violations.

The report also found no evidence that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater’s actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting incidents, or detain contractors for investigation.

But in his testimony today, Erik Prince said he fully supported his company and its approximately 1,000 employees on the ground in Iraq.

ERIK PRINCE, CEO, Blackwater USA: The areas of Iraq in which we operate are particularly dangerous and challenging. Blackwater personnel are subject to regular attacks by terrorists and other nefarious forces within Iraq. We’re the targets of the same ruthless enemies that have killed more than 3,800 American military personnel and thousands of innocent Iraqis.

Any incident where Americans are attacked serves as a reminder of the hostile environment in which our professionals work to keep American officials and dignitaries safe, including visiting members of Congress. In doing so, more American servicemembers are available to fight the enemy.

Blackwater shares the committee’s interest in ensuring the accountability and oversight of contract personnel supporting U.S. operations. The company’s personnel are already accountable under and subject to numerous statutes, treaties, and regulations of the United States.

Blackwater looks forward to working with Congress and the executive branch to ensure that any necessary improvements to these laws and policies are implemented.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Prince added that no one under Blackwater protection in Iraq had ever been killed or injured. But 27 Blackwater employees have been killed, and hundreds more have been injured there. He said Blackwater guards fired their weapons just 56 times this year in more than 1,800 missions.

ERIK PRINCE: We don’t even record all the times that our guys receive fire. The vehicles get shot at on a daily basis multiple times a day. So that’s not something we even record.

In this case, if an incident is a defensive measure, you’re responding to an IED attack followed by small-arms fire, most of the attacks we get in Iraq are complex, meaning it’s not just one bad thing, it’s a host of bad things, car bomb followed by small-arms attack, RPGs followed by sniper fire.

An incident occurs typically when our men fear for their life, they’re not able to extract themselves from the situation, they have to use sufficient defensive fire to get off the X, to get off that place where the bad guys have tried to kill Americans that day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On Christmas Eve 2006, a drunken Blackwater employee allegedly killed a security guard for the Iraqi vice president. That was the subject of questioning by New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY (D), New York: Other than firing him, has there been any sanction against him by any government authority? You mentioned you fined people for bad behavior. Was he fined for killing the Iraqi guard?

ERIK PRINCE: Yes, he was.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: How much was he fined?

ERIK PRINCE: Multiple thousands of dollars. I don’t know the exact number. I’ll have to get you that answer.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: OK.

ERIK PRINCE: Look, I’m not going to make any apologies for what he did. He clearly violated our policies.

REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Every American believes he violated policies. If he lived in America, he would have been arrested, and he would be facing criminal charges. If he was a member of our military, he would be under a court-martial. But it appears to me that Blackwater has special rules.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maryland’s Elijah Cummings followed up.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), Maryland: It’s a question of, when things go wrong, where is the accountability?

ERIK PRINCE: And, sir, we fired him, we fined him, but we as a private organization can’t do any more. We can’t flog him, we can’t incarcerate him. That’s up to the Justice Department. We are not empowered to enforce U.S. law.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Do you think more should be done?

ERIK PRINCE: I’d be happy to see further investigation and prosecution by the Justice Department, yes, sir.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Blackwater found some support on the committee. Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R), Connecticut: I am in awe of what your men and women — and they’ve been mostly men — have done to protect our civilians. I am in absolutely in awe of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Blackwater charges the government $1,222 per day per contractor for its services. Florida Republican John Mica asked about the cost.

REP. JOHN MICA (R), Florida: There’s also some argument that you cost the government too much and that you’re getting paid too much and that maybe this is something that the military should be doing. Could you respond to that?

ERIK PRINCE: I greatly encourage Congress to do some true activity-based cost studies. What do some of these basic government functions really cost? Because I don’t believe it’s as simple as saying, “Well, this sergeant costs us this much,” because that sergeant doesn’t show up there naked and untrained. There’s a whole bunch of other costs that go into it.

Analysis from Committee members

Rep. Henry Waxman
House Oversight Committee Chairman
They're undermining our mission in Iraq. They're angering the military, who find that they have no control over them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Later, the committee took testimony from representatives of the State Department, focusing on whether it has exercised enough oversight of Blackwater. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters today he's planning to have the Pentagon strengthen its oversight of private security firms.

And with me now to discuss the issues surrounding Blackwater USA are Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and its ranking minority member, Representative Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

REP. TOM DAVIS (R), Virginia: Thank you.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D), California: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Waxman, to you first. Did you hear anything from Mr. Prince today that reassured you further about Blackwater and what it's doing in Iraq?

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: What bothered me about his company is that it went from $200,000 government contracts in 2001 to over a billion dollars in the last six years. This is a company that's taken off like gangbusters, all on government contracting.

Now, if we, in this privatization of our military, were paying less and getting better service, then I'd say it's worth it. But we're paying a lot more. Our military is the standard I hold these people to; our military is doing an outstanding job.

But some of these Blackwater personnel are off on doing some very strange things. They're undermining our mission in Iraq. They're angering the military, who find that they have no control over them. And there have been a couple of incidents we went through in the hearing where that the Blackwater people were unaccountable for some very awful, terrible tragedies, innocent people that were killed and not held accountable by the military, by the Iraqi government, or even by the U.S. legal efforts, at least to date.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, you've raised several points. The money that's being spent, the fact that you say they're undermining the mission of the military and so forth.

Congressman Davis, what about the mission? We heard today from Mr. Prince that they are to be in a defensive posture, but then we also learned that, in 80 percent of these instances, they're firing first.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Well, I think the 80 percent number is reported; I don't know that that's accurate. But the reality is they're a diplomatic security company. Before 2001, there wasn't as much diplomatic security concerns in Iraq and other parts of the world as there is today.

And so they, along with other contractors in this business, naturally their business has escalated because the need has escalated. They operate under contract with the State Department. The State Department has guidelines. If we have any quarrel, we ought to be looking to the State Department and Defense Department for the way they're contracting and for what the true costs are. I think that's something we look at.

Incidents in Blackwater's history

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Representative Waxman, if what you're hearing is that they are supposed to be following these guidelines, do you feel you now have proof that they haven't followed those guidelines?

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Well, there was one incident in Afghanistan where a couple of Blackwater pilots took a plane. They were carrying three U.S. military personnel. They crashed it into a wall. They were flying into one canyon. They didn't know what canyon was the right one. They had no experience in theater. They didn't even follow Blackwater's own rules. And the result was the death of people who serve our country so well in the military.

And that shooting on Christmas Eve, where the fellow got drunk and shot the guard to the vice president of Iraq, the State Department worked with Blackwater to get him out of the country in 36 hours and then talked to Blackwater about how much money -- there was a debate. Should they pay $250,000? They ended up paying $15,000 to the family in order to get the issue out of the way.

The State Department told us they went to Blackwater because it was a short-term project. Well, we've been in Iraq for a long time now. At the same time, they're spending $600 million building an embassy that's going to be there for a long time. I think we ought to rethink whether we need to privatize and contract out the protection services for the State Department or the additional services that the military needs when they have to go to these private contractors.

Military security duties

Rep. Tom Davis
R-Va.
It is time to look at it and to examine the costs and the benefits. I'm not so sure it's as clear cut as Henry would like to make it, but I think we need to examine that and see if the taxpayers are getting their value for the dollar.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that? Could the work that they're doing, Blackwater and these other firms, be handled by the military?

REP. TOM DAVIS: Well, originally, this was going to be short term. That's why they got the contracts; that's why you had private security firms. When we first went into Iraq, we didn't have the capability in house to do it.

Obviously, we've been there four or five years. It is time to look at it and to examine the costs and the benefits. I'm not so sure it's as clear cut as Henry would like to make it, but I think we need to examine that and see if the taxpayers are getting their value for the dollar.

But the oversight here, in terms of whisking people out of the country, those are State Department determinations. Those aren't Blackwater determinations. The punishment for all of these employees are vetted through the State Department. They have security clearances.

So we ought to be focusing on the government and its role less than focusing on just a contractor in this case. I think there are some serious issues there. I want to work with Henry to try to get to the bottom of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what do you think should be done? You're saying you're willing to look at it. What...

REP. TOM DAVIS: Well, I think we need to look at costs and benefits at this point. Over a four-year period, we know what the costs of Blackwater is. In your report, over $1,200 a day for an employee. How does that face up with what we did if we took this in house with the military or with some civilian agency doing that? What are the costs? What are the training components?

You have to measure these costs fully loaded, not by somebody's salary, and I'd like to see a comparison. And GAO could help us with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are we saying nobody really knows what they're doing could be done in a less expensive way?

REP. TOM DAVIS: I think I'd like to see a GAO accounting of what all of the costs are and what it would take for training and everything else. I'm not ready to concede what the costs are, but I've got to believe that, if you're planning over the long term, we need to take a careful look at what we could do in house.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Waxman, are you saying you'd like to see them done away with?

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: I think that we should have a clearer picture of what we're doing and what we need in Iraq. And this goes back to the very beginning, the mistakes of the Bush administration.

They didn't give enough military support, even though General Shinseki and the other military people said they needed more troops there. They never asked for any way to pay for this war; it's all being paid by deficit spending. They never asked for sacrifices by anybody else.

And now we're paying more and getting less. A military guy gets paid around $60,000. And if you add up what these individual contractors get, it's over $400,000.

The future of private security

Rep. Henry Waxman
House Oversight Committee Chairman
I think that they are undermining our mission, because Iraqis who are killed and their family members don't say, "Oh, that's a private military as opposed to the U.S. military." They say, "Those are the Americans."

JUDY WOODRUFF: So are you saying we should do away with it?

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: If we're going to need that job done, then the government ought to do what Mr. Prince is doing. He's just hiring veterans and then training them to do this job. We ought to do that in house. We don't need to give him a million-dollar-a-year salary and increase his income by over a billion dollars in contracts when we're getting less performance, with a lot of problems undermining our mission in Iraq, and we're paying a lot more money than need be.

REP. TOM DAVIS: Well, I'm not sure that's true. In fact, the State Department own determination said putting somebody in the field out there is $500,000 a year, when you fully load it. That goes into training. That goes into the pension benefits. That goes into the buildings and everything else.

But I'd like to see an apples-to-apples comparison. What we see here isn't apples-to-apples.

Let me just add: These hearings are by proxy what the Democrats in Congress haven't been able to accomplish, and that is a need to stop the war, but they can go after the individual contractors.

There are serious issues that Henry has identified here. We want to work with him to get to the bottom of it. But I think focusing on one contractor is not the way to do it. The focus ought to be on State and Defense and how these contracts are let and what is the benefit to the taxpayer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying it's just a proxy for their opposition to the war? Is that...

REP. TOM DAVIS: They can hold the hearings. They can spike up the base, because they haven't been able to do on the House floor and the Senate floor what they'd prefer to do.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Well, for the last six years, with the Republicans in charge of Congress, we never had a hearing on the privatization of the military. We never had a hearing on Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. We never had a hearing on important issues. And when Clinton was president and the Republicans were in charge, they had an extensive hearing on whether Clinton misused his Christmas card list.

Oversight is an important job. And when we are spending as much money as we are in this privatization of the military, then we ought to ask questions, especially when this latest incident in September, even President Maliki said, "Get Blackwater out of here. They're causing more problems than they're doing good."

I think that they are undermining our mission, because Iraqis who are killed and their family members don't say, "Oh, that's a private military as opposed to the U.S. military." They say, "Those are the Americans." And we're all being held responsible for some of the people that are acting like cowboys working for Blackwater.

REP. TOM DAVIS: The alternative to privatizing this -- and I think we need to look at it, but it's a troop surge. It's putting more military in there to get the job done at this point, at a time when a lot of us would like to be pulling troops out.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: They only have 800 people in Iraq. We're not talking about...

REP. TOM DAVIS: Well, that's Blackwater. But you have other contractors...

REP. TOM DAVIS: We have 130,000 contractors in Iraq, and that's the untold story of this war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, we are going to leave it there. Gentlemen, we thank you both, Chairman Henry Waxman and Congressman Tom Davis. We appreciate it. Thank you.