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Congress Hears from Killed Contractors' Families

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Congress Hears from Killed Contractors' Families

Politics

Congress Hears from Killed Contractors' Families

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Relatives of four American citizens who were brutally killed in Iraq in 2004 testified on Capitol Hill today. The relatives were mothers and widows of men hired by the private contractor Blackwater to provide security in Iraq. They said the men were given inadequate armor and weapons to do their jobs. The families have filed lawsuits against Blackwater.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: It was among the most gruesome imagines from the war in Iraq: four American security contractors killed in Fallujah, their bodies mutilated, dragged through the streets by an angry mob and strung over power lines.

The four were employees of Blackwater USA, a North Carolina-based private firm that has been hired to provide protection for U.S. officials in Iraq. But the families of those killed on that March day say that Blackwater failed to provide what the men needed to protect themselves.

Among those testifying was Donna Zovko, whose son Jerry was a former Army Ranger hired by Blackwater.

Ms. DONNA ZOVKO (Mother of Jerry Zovko): He had his discipline, he had his known-how, knowing the Middle East as he did, but they didn't give him the tools to work with. They just simply sent him out there to die.

NAYLOR: The relatives of the dead Blackwater employees say the company ignored requests for armored vehicles, for heavy machine guns, even for a map. They said the men on the Fallujah mission requested they be sent out in three-man teams, but the company refused. Appearing later before the same House Oversight Committee hearing, Blackwater general counsel Andrew Howell defended his company's conduct.

Mr. ANDREW HOWELL (General Counsel, Blackwater USA): The mission they were on that day at that point in time, given the threat as it was known on the ground in Iraq, the norm was not to have the third person.

NAYLOR: The relatives of the men killed in Fallujah have filed a lawsuit against Blackwater, saying they want information from the secretive company, not a financial reward. The Blackwater contract is part of a massive overall contract the government awarded to Halliburton Company, and Blackwater's involvement was a subcontract.

Republicans on the panel came to the defense of the Bush administration's practice of contracting out everything from meals to security in Iraq, and argued that today's hearing was not germane to contracting oversight. Republican Darrell Issa of California said the relatives were using the hearing to try their case.

Representative DARRELL ISSA (Republican, California): The role of having you three bereaved women hereā€¦

Unidentified Woman: There's four of us.

Rep. ISSA: I'm sorry, thank you. And you know, it's a good thing I learned to count early but not well - having you hear to tell us about your loss when in fact it's the subject of a lawsuit that ongoing and in fact this committee has no jurisdiction here.

NAYLOR: Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel, mother of one of the slain Americans, answered Issa this way.

Ms. KATHRYN HELVENSTON-WETTENGEL (Mother of Blackwater Contractor): We're subcontracting out our war. I understand there's 100,000 contractors over there, and there doesn't seem to be a law that applies. They literally can get away with murder.

NAYLOR: Meanwhile, the Justice Department, which has been investigating contracting abuses, announced today the indictment of three former Army officers and two civilians. They're charged with diverting $3.6 million in Iraq reconstruction money for their personal use. The money was allegedly to be spent on expensive cars and watches, real estate and plane tickets. Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty announced the indictments at a Washington news conference.

Mr. PAUL MCNULTY (Deputy Attorney General): Thousands upon thousands of courageous and patriotic soldiers and civilians of the United States have devoted themselves to the mission of creating a free and democratic society in Iraq. We will not allow a handful of greedy individuals to undermine the self-sacrificing labors of these heroes.

NAYLOR: The 25-count indictment was announced one day after the House Oversight Committee heard testimony from Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, about how $12 billion in Iraqi oil money was doled out without any accounting.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, The Capitol.

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