Blackwater CEO Defends Workers in Iraq
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The man who founded the private security firm Blackwater USA defended his company yesterday, saying his armed contractors are not cowboys, reckless in Iraq. Prince testified before the House Committee on Oversight in Government Reform. The hearing was sparked by a deadly shooting incident in Baghdad last month that involved Blackwater personnel. Prince stressed that his contractors work in dangerous and complex environments.
Here is NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam.
JACKIE NORTHAM: For nearly four hours, Blackwater's chief executive, Eric Prince, sat alone at the witness table in the packed congressional hearing room, answering questions from members of the House Oversight Committee - questions about Blackwater's mission in Iraq, the company's astonishing growth over the past few years, and deadly incidents involving Blackwater contractors.
On Monday, the Justice Department asked the committee not to raise any questions about the September 16th shooting incident in Baghdad involving Blackwater contractors that left at least 11 Iraqi civilians dead, because it's under investigation. Still, Prince did address the issue indirectly several times.
Mr. ERIC PRINCE (Founder and CEO, Blackwater): Every life, whether American or Iraqi, is precious. I stress to the committee and to the American public, however, that I believe we acted appropriately at all times.
NORTHAM: Prince said there had been a rush to judgment before investigations into the September shooting were complete. Throughout the hearing, Prince cast his armed contractors as brave and skilled men who venture into harm's way to protect U.S. diplomats and others in Iraq. But this characterization didn't wash with many members of the Oversight Committee especially after a congressional report released Monday said Blackwater had been involved in nearly 200 incidents in which weapons were fired over the past two years, and that in most cases, Blackwater fired first from moving vehicles.
Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, pulled no punches during his statement.
Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS (Democrat, Maryland): Blackwater, we have to question in this hearing, whether it created a shadow military of mercenary forces that are not accountable to the United States government or to anyone else. Blackwater appears to have fostered a culture of shoot first and sometimes kill, and then ask the questions.
NORTHAM: Prince rejected assertions like that every time they were made during the hearing. He said his contractors do not engage in offensive or military operations - only defensive.
Representative Danny Davis, an Illinois Democrat, asked if mistakes are ever made.
Representative DANNY DAVIS (Democrat, Illinois): You do admit that Blackwater personnel have shot and killed innocent civilians, don't you?
Mr. PRINCE: No, sir. I disagree with that. I think there's been times when guys are using defensive force to protect themselves, to protect the package they're trying to get away from danger. So there could be ricochets, there are traffic accidents. Yes, this is war.
NORTHAM: Though committee members had to refrain from asking about the September shooting, there were other incidents they asked about. One involved a drunken Blackwater contractor who killed an Iraqi vice presidential security guard on Christmas Eve 2006. The contractor was fired and fined several thousand dollars. The U.S. State Department and Blackwater allowed him to leave Iraq. So far, the Justice Department has not pressed charges.
New York Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney pressed Prince on the issue.
Representative CAROLYN MALONEY (Democrat, New York): The response was to pack him up and have him leave the country within two days. How do you justify sending him away from Iraq when any investigation would have only just begin?
Mr. PRINCE: We, as a private company, cannot detain him. We can fire, we can fine, but we can't do anything else.
NORTHAM: Beyond accountability questions, many House members questioned the cost of private security contractors. Committee Chairman Henry Waxman said, since 2001, Blackwater has earned nearly a billion dollars from U.S. government contracts, and that the average Blackwater contractor made more than twelve hundred dollars a day - six times the amount a U.S. sergeant does. Waxman questioned using armed contractors to do the work the military normally does.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (California, Democrat; Chairman, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform): No one does this work better than the U.S. military. So the question in my mind is: Are we paying more and getting less?
NORTHAM: Prince defended using contractors in Iraq.
Mr. PRINCE: Because it's tough for the military to be all things to all people all the time.
NORTHAM: The one unspoken fact that did not come up during the hearing is that the U.S. needs contractors to conduct the war in Iraq.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.