Blackwater Chief Defends Employees Before House Panel
WASHINGTON, Oct. 2 —The head of Blackwater USA said today that his company was the victim of “a rush to judgment” by a Congressional committee looking into claims that the company’s contract security guards in Iraq have repeatedly been involved in reckless shootings of civilians.
Erik Prince, the founder and chief executive of Blackwater, insisted that his employees were responding to hostile fire in a controversial Sept. 16 shootout that left at least eight Iraqis dead, a contention that has been vehemently disputed by witnesses and by the Iraqi government.
And Mr. Prince disputed findings released on Monday by the majority staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which portrayed Blackwater security guards as often out of control and indifferent to civilian casualties. The committee is holding a hearing on Blackwater today.
“Based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone on Sept. 16,” Mr. Prince said at a hearing whose lines of debate quickly formed along party lines.
Though he did not specifically address other incidents, he emphasized in his statement that his company’s work in a “hostile environment” was “particularly dangerous and challenging.” He said that though 30 Blackwater employees had lost their lives in Iraq, no one they were guarding had been killed or seriously injured, and added, “There is no better evidence of the skill and dedication of these men.”
But Representative Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who is the panel’s chairman, expressed doubt about Blackwater’s contributions. “Privatizing is working exceptionally well for Blackwater,” he said. “The question for this hearing is whether outsourcing to Blackwater is a good deal to the American taxpayer.”
Republicans on the committee urged fellow members not to make up their minds too quickly. Representative Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina elicited from Mr. Prince that 27 Blackwater employees have been killed in Iraq, but no State Department staff members. “Your client is the State Department,” Mr. McHenry said. “The State Department has a contract with you to provide protective service for their visitors.And you’ve had zero individuals under your care and protection killed.”
The committee staff report said Blackwater guards had engaged in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005, and in the vast majority of cases the guards fired their weapons from moving vehicles without stopping to count the dead or assist the wounded. In at least two cases, Blackwater paid victims’ family members who complained, and the company sought to cover up other episodes, the report said.
The staff report said that State Department officials approved the payments in the hope of keeping the shootings quiet, and in one case last year, helped Blackwater move an employee out of Iraq less than 36 hours after the employee, while drunk, killed a bodyguard for one of Iraq’s two vice presidents on Christmas Eve.
Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, zeroed in on the Christmas Eve incident. “Well, in America, if you committed a crime, you don’t pack them up and ship them out of the country in two days,” she said. “If you’re really concerned about accountability, which you testified in your testimony, you would have gone in and done a thorough investigation.”
How, Ms. Maloney asked, did Mr. Prince justify sending the man out of Iraq?
“Again,” Mr. Prince said, “he was fired. The Justice Department was investigating. In Baghdad, there is a Justice Department office there. He didn’t have a job with us any more. We, as a private company, cannot detain him. We can fire, we can fine, but we can’t do anything else.”
But Democrats were not happy with that explanation, and returned repeatedly to the Christmas Eve shooting. Throughout the questioning, Mr. Prince appeared to be calm and collected.
The report by the Democratic majority staff of a House committee adds weight to complaints from Iraqi officials, American military officers and Blackwater’s competitors that the company’s guards have taken an aggressive, trigger-happy approach to their work and have repeatedly acted with reckless disregard for Iraqi life.
But the report is also harshly critical of the State Department for exercising virtually no restraint or supervision of the private security company’s 861 employees in Iraq. “There is no evidence in the documents that the committee has reviewed that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater’s actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting episodes involving Blackwater or the company’s high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation,” the report states.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made it clear that she wants “a probing, comprehensive, unvarnished examination of the overall issue of security contractors working for her department in Iraq,” David Satterfield, the department’s senior coordinator in Iraq, said in this afternoon’s session. He said it was common practice for the State Department to use outside contractors for security.
Richard J. Griffin, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, rejected a suggestion by Mr. Waxman that the department might be trying to cover up the Christmas Eve incident. When Mr. Waxman asked whether the Blackwater guard involved was being prosecuted, Mr. Griffin said that was a question for the Justice Department: “They’re the prosecutors.”
Representative Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, urged his colleagues not to make up their minds too soon. “I have no objection to this kind of a hearing, but what really concerns me is that there appears to be a rush to judgment, and I don’t think that should happen,” Mr. Burton said. “It’s going to be thoroughly investigated in Iraq by Iraqis and American officials.”
But Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, said there was already enough reason for concern. “They may have done some good things,” Mr. Cummings said of the Blackwater employees. “The question is whether there’s accountability. 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.”
In the Sept. 16 incident, Blackwater employees who were guarding an American convoy were involved in a shooting in a Baghdad square that remains clouded. The shooting set off outrage among Iraqi officials, who branded the civilian deaths “cold-blooded murder” and demanded that the company be removed from the country.
The State Department is conducting three separate investigations of the incident, and on Monday the F.B.I. said it was sending a team to Baghdad to compile evidence for possible criminal prosecution.
Mr. Prince, 38, a former Navy Seal who founded the company a decade ago, said in his statement that the allegations about the Sept. 16 episode were baseless and that the committee was moving against his company “based on inaccurate information.”
In the report, the Democratic staff of the committee said it reviewed 437 internal Blackwater incident reports, as well as internal State Department correspondence, and found that Blackwater’s use of force in Iraq was “frequent and extensive, resulting in significant casualties and property damage.”
The committee report places a significant share of the blame for Blackwater’s record in Iraq on the State Department, which has paid Blackwater more than $832 million for security services in Iraq and elsewhere, under a diplomatic security contract it shares with two other companies, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy.
Blackwater has reported more shootings than the other two companies combined, but it also currently has twice as many employees in Iraq as the other two companies combined.
In the case of the Christmas Eve killing, the report said that an official of the United States Embassy in Iraq suggested paying the slain bodyguard’s family $250,000, but a lower-ranking official said that such a high payment “could cause incidents with people trying to get killed by our guys to financially guarantee their family’s future.” Blackwater ultimately paid the dead man’s family $15,000.
In another fatal shooting cited by the committee, an unidentified State Department official in Baghdad urged Blackwater to pay the victim’s family $5,000. The official wrote, “I hope we can put this unfortunate matter behind us quickly.”
The committee report also cited three other shootings in which Blackwater officials filed misleading reports or otherwise tried to cover up the shootings.
Since mid-2006, Blackwater has been responsible for guarding American diplomats in and around Baghdad, while DynCorp has been responsible for the northern part of the country and Triple Canopy for the south.
State Department officials said last week that Blackwater had run more than 1,800 escort convoys for American diplomats and other senior civilians this year and its employees had discharged their weapons 57 times. Blackwater was involved in 195 instances of gunfire from 2005 until early September, a rate of 1.4 shootings a week, the report says. In 163 of those cases, Blackwater gunmen fired first.
The report also says Blackwater gunmen engaged in offensive operations alongside uniformed American military personnel in violation of their State Department contract, which states that Blackwater guards are to use their weapons only for defensive purposes.
It notes that Blackwater’s contract authorizes its employees to use lethal force only to prevent “imminent and grave danger” to themselves or to the people they are paid to protect. “In practice, however,” the report says, “the vast majority of Blackwater weapons discharges are pre-emptive, with Blackwater forces firing first at a vehicle or suspicious individual prior to receiving any fire.”
The report cites two instances in which Blackwater gunmen engaged in tactical military operations. One was a firefight in Najaf in 2004 during which Blackwater employees set up a machine gun alongside American and Spanish forces. Later that year, a Blackwater helicopter helped an American military squad secure a mosque from which sniper fire had been detected.
Blackwater has dismissed 122 of its employees over the past three years for misuse of weapons, drug or alcohol abuse, lewd conduct or violent behavior, according to the report. It has also terminated workers for insubordination, failure to report incidents or lying about them, and publicly embarrassing the company. One employee was dismissed for showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
On Monday, the Senate gave final approval, 92 to 3, to a defense policy bill that included the establishment of an independent commission to investigate private contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill, which must be reconciled with a House version, faces a veto threat because it includes an expansion of federal hate-crimes laws.
James Risen, David Stout, David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.