A congressional report authored by House Democrats says the private security firm Blackwater USA is an irresponsible and trigger-happy organization that acts with impunity while protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq.
The release of the report comes as the House prepares Tuesday to open a hearing into a deadly shooting spree in Baghdad last month involving Blackwater personnel that left at least 11 Iraqi civilians dead.
Erik Prince, the founder and chairman of Blackwater USA, will be the key witness.
Prince may have thought the questioning would be focused on his organization's involvement in the Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad. However, the report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee indicates that Blackwater's troubles are widespread. Since 2005, it said, Blackwater has been involved in at least 195 incidents where weapons were fired.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), the chairman of the committee, said the security firm's role is supposed to be purely defensive, "but in over 80 percent of the shooting incidents, Blackwater reports that its forces fired the first shot."
"[In] a vast majority of incidents, Blackwater's firing from a moving vehicle. And they haven't remained at the scene to determine if the shots resulted in casualties," Waxman said.
The report, citing Blackwater's own internal emails and State Department documents, said that the firm has fired at least 122 employees — or nearly one-seventh of its workforce in Iraq — for such infractions as misusing weapons and substance abuse.
"There's no evidence ... that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater's actions or raise concerns about the number of shooting incidents by Blackwater," Waxman said.
One revealing incident detailed in the report has the State Department trying to determine the amount of compensation Blackwater should pay the family of an Iraqi victim. Initially, department officials recommend $250,000, according to the House oversight report. That is later reduced to $15,000 because overpaying could cause Iraqis to "try to get killed."
The State Department has moved quickly to quell the rising controversy over the September shooting incident, dispatching its own investigative team to Iraq to join several other inquiries already underway. It has also asked the FBI to send a team of criminal investigators to Iraq.
State Department officials said it is too early to draw conclusions about what happened during the September incident.
Blackwater maintains its employees opened fire only after they were attacked at a traffic circle in central Baghdad. Iraqi witnesses said the attack by the armed contractors was unprovoked. Either way, the incident has exposed a raw nerve for many of the war's critics. Private contractors in Iraq are not only expensive — Blackwater employees average more than $1,200 a day — but they are also virtually immune from prosecution.
Deborah Avant, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, is an expert on the subject of private military companies. She said congressional hearings may force some change, but it is "difficult to oversee people when they're working in these really dangerous and unlawful areas."
The first interim report by the State Department about the September shooting is due out later this week.