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The head of Blackwater USA, the private security firm implicated in a series of deadly firefights in Iraq, defended his employees' actions before a Congressional committee Tuesday, saying his firm had acted properly "at all times." Two top members of the House panel discuss the testimony.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Yes, he was.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY:
How much was he fined?
Multiple thousands of dollars. I don't know the exact number. I'll have to get you that answer.
Look, I'm not going to make any apologies for what he did. He clearly violated our policies.
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.
Maryland's Elijah Cummings followed up.
REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), Maryland: It's a question of, when things go wrong, where is the accountability?
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?
I'd be happy to see further investigation and prosecution by the Justice Department, yes, sir.
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.
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?
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.
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