Blackwater Founder to Testify on Hill Erik Prince, the founder and chairman of private security firm Blackwater USA, is due to testify before Congress. He will respond to a report describing the company as irresponsible and trigger-happy.
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Hear Jackie Northam's story about the Congressional hearing involving Blackwater USA on Morning Edition

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Blackwater Founder to Testify on Hill

Blackwater Founder to Testify on Hill

Hear Jackie Northam's story about the Congressional hearing involving Blackwater USA on Morning Edition

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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.

Blackwater's Prince Has GOP, Christian Group Ties

With more than $800 million in contracts, Blackwater USA, led by Erik Prince, is among the biggest companies providing armed guards for U.S. officials and government contractors in Iraq.

Prince, the heir to a Michigan auto-parts fortune, has close ties to the Republican Party and conservative Christian groups. He began his career with a stint as an officer in the U.S. Navy SEALs, and co-founded Blackwater in 1997 with other former commandos. His family's wealth made it possible for the then 27-year-old Prince to fund the Blackwater start-up with his own money.

Prince and his firm have drawn scrutiny from members of Congress after Blackwater guards were accused of opening fire on civilians in Baghdad in an incident that left at least nine people dead.

Blackwater has said that its employees were defending a State Department convoy and denied that they had done anything improper, though Prince has made no public statement on the issue. The Iraqi government threatened to expel the company from the country, but after four days, Blackwater was allowed to resume its activities guarding State Department personnel.

Republican, Christian Ties

Prince grew up in Holland, Mich., where his father, Edgar Prince, built Prince Corporation, an auto-parts company that based its success on novel products, such as the lighted vanity mirror for car window visors. The elder Prince was a close friend and supporter of Christian evangelists, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, as well as a contributor to the Republican Party. He was an early benefactor of the Family Research Council.

Erik Prince was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, but dropped out after three semesters. He later told the Virginia-Pilot newspaper that he loved the Navy but disliked the academy. He finished his schooling at the Christian-oriented Hillsdale College in Michigan.

Prince later rejoined the Navy through Officer Candidate School and qualified for the SEALs. He served about three years, but left the service early after his father's death in 1995. The family sold the business shortly afterward to Johnson Controls for more than $1.3 billion.

Prince has rarely given interviews to the news media. In an email question-and-answer exchange with the Virginia- Pilot in 2006, he wrote that his Navy experience convinced him of the need for a company that could provide advanced training to military personnel and civilian contractors.

The organization rapidly grew into nine companies, providing everything from bomb-sniffing dogs to drone reconnaissance aircraft. Some of the teams that guard U.S. officials in Iraq are provided by Blackwater Security Consultants, which backs them up with helicopters and specially built military-style armored vehicles. The company's light-weight "Little Bird" helicopters, with gunmen hanging out the side doors, are a familiar icon of Blackwater's presence in Baghdad.

Prince has been a steady contributor to the Republican National Committee, giving more than $200,000 since 1998. He also has supported various conservative candidates, including President Bush, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Rick Santorum (R-PA), Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), and indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX).

Other members of Prince's family have been active in Republican politics. His sister, Betsy DeVos, has served as chair of the Michigan Republican Party, and her husband, Dick DeVos, was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor of Michigan in 2006. Dick DeVos, a member of the conservative family that co-founded Amway, succeeded his father as president of that company.

Prince serves as a board member of Christian Freedom International, a nonprofit group that provides Bibles, food and other help to Christians in countries where they face persecution.

Prince's first wife died of cancer in 2003. They had four children together. Prince also has two children with his second wife.