Blackwater CEO Defends Workers in Iraq

Erik Prince, founder and CEO of Blackwater USA, defends his private security firm against allegations that contractors in Iraq have been involved in several incidents resulting in civilian casualties.

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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.

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Blackwater Founder to Testify on Hill

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.

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