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The head of the private security firm Blackwater USA is expected to appear before Congress today after a new congressional report gave this assessment of Blackwater: quote, "an irresponsible and trigger-happy organization that acts with impunity while protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq," unquote.
The report was compiled by the Democratic majority staff of the House Committee on oversight and government reform. Its release comes ahead of these hearings into a controversial shooting incident last month in Baghdad involving Blackwater personnel that left at least 11 Iraqi civilians dead.
NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: Erik Prince, the founder and chairman of Blackwater USA, will be the key witness at today's hearing. Prince, who prefers to remain in the background, may have thought he would just have to answer questions about his organization's involvement in the September 16th shooting in Baghdad. But the new report by the House Oversight Committee indicates that the troubles surrounding Blackwater are more widespread than that. Among other things, the report found that since 2005, Blackwater has been involved in at least 195 shootings.
Henry Waxman, the chair of the committee, says Blackwater is only supposed to be providing defensive services to the State Department.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California; Chairman, House Oversight Committee): But in over 80 percent of the shooting incidents, Blackwater reports that its forces fired the first shot. In a vast majority of instances, Blackwater's firing from a moving vehicle, and they haven't remained at the scene to determine if the shots resulted in casualties.
NORTHAM: The House Oversight report says that Blackwater has sacked at least 122 employees - about one-seventh of its workforce in Iraq - for things such as misusing weapons and substance abuse problems. The report by the Oversight Committee was compiled using Blackwater's own internal e-mail messages and State Department documents.
Waxman's report details one incident where the State Department was involved in trying to determine how much Blackwater should pay the family of an Iraqi victim. Initially, department officials recommended a quarter of a million dollars. According to the House Oversight report, that was knocked down to $15,000 because overpaying could cause Iraqis to, quote, "try to get killed." Waxman says there are other problems.
Rep. WAXMAN: There's no evidence in the documents that the committee has reviewed that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater's actions or raise concerns about the number of shooting incidents involving Blackwater or the company's high rate of shooting first, or even detained a Blackwater contractor for investigation.
NORTHAM: The State Department has moved relatively quickly to quell the rising controversy over the September shooting incident. It dispatched its own investigative team to Iraq last weekend to join several other inquiries already underway. The State Department has also asked the FBI to send a team of criminal investigators to Iraq, says Richard Kolko, a special agent with the FBI.
Mr. RICHARD KOLKO (Special Agent, FBI): At this point, it's just to go over there to assist the State Department and conduct any investigation. Anything about any charges or something would be just much further down the road.
NORTHAM: State Department officials say it's too early to draw conclusions about what happened during the chaotic shooting incident in September. Blackwater maintains its employees opened fire only after being attacked at a traffic circle in Central Baghdad. Iraqi witnesses say the attack by the armed contractors was unprovoked.
Either way, the incident has exposed a raw nerve for many critics of the handling of the war. Private contractors in Iraq are not only expensive -Blackwater employees average more than $1,200 a day - but they're virtually immune from prosecution.
Deborah Avant is a professor at the University of California-Irvine, and an expert on the subject of private military companies. She says congressional hearings, like Waxman's, may force some change.
Dr. DEBORAH AVANT ( Director, International Department of Political Science, University of California-Irvine): The thing that I would hope for is some change in the processes of oversight of these personal security details in Iraq. But it's always difficult to oversee people when they're working in these really dangerous and unlawful areas.
NORTHAM: The first interim report by the State Department about the September shooting is due out later this week.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.