WASHINGTON — Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince defended his company Tuesday from an onslaught by House Democrats, who portrayed the defense contractor as an overpaid private army that is harming U.S. interests in the Middle East.
The normally secretive Prince, whose company has secured more than $1 billion in federal contracts, said Blackwater guards operated properly in a Sept. 16 melee in a Baghdad square that left as many as 11 Iraqi civilians dead and ignited an uproar over the use of private military contractors.
"Based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone on September 16," Prince said in prepared testimony for a packed hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "There has been a rush to judgment."
Iraqi officials say Blackwater guards fired unprovoked on Iraqi vehicles that day, killing, among others, a baby and a mother of eight.
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The committee did not probe the incident at the request of the Justice department, following the announcement Monday that the FBI was joining a State Department investigation.
Blackwater, under contract to protect U.S. diplomats and other civilians in Iraq, has been involved in numerous other incidents in which apparently innocent Iraqis were killed, according to a report released Monday by chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Cal. It disclosed that company security specialists were involved in nearly 200 "escalation of force" incidents involving the firing of shots since 2005.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chastised Prince for Blackwater's response to an incident on Christmas Eve 2006 in which a drunken employee killed a bodyguard to Iraq's vice president, and was whisked out of Iraq with the State Department's knowledge.
Prince said the man had been fired and fined. But an internal Blackwater e-mail released at the hearing showed that he merely forfeited bonuses and a return air ticket worth a total of $14, 697.
"If he lived in America, he would have been arrested, and he would be facing criminal charges. If he was a member of our military, he would be under a court-martial. But it appears to me that Blackwater has special rules," Maloney said.
"We fired him. We fined him. But we as a private organization can't do any more. We can't flog him. We can't incarcerate him," Prince said in response to questions by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., about the same incident.
It is that apparent lack of accountability that has caused growing scrutiny of the burgeoning private security industry.
No private military contractor has been criminally prosecuted for alleged wrongdoing in Iraq.
Many of the committee's Republicans complained that the hearing was a partisan attempt to smear a firm with strong ties to the GOP. Prince's sister, Betsy DeVos, is a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party and her family has made large contributions to the GOP.
Republicans also repeated Blackwater's argument that the company is supporting the U.S. mission in Iraq, and that no diplomats or lawmakers visiting Baghdad have been killed or seriously wounded while under Blackwater's protection.
"That should account for something," said Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind.
Prince, a former Navy SEAL whose answers to questions were short, pithy and filled with military jargon, said that 30 employees of Blackwater and its affiliates lost their lives in overseas deployments.
Not all died while protecting U.S. government officials.
In the audience Tuesday were family members of four Blackwater employees who were killed and mutilated in Fallujah, Iraq in March 2004, an incident that sparked a major battle involving U.S. troops early in the Iraq war. The families are suing Blackwater.
Danica Zovko, mother of one of the four, Jerry Zovko, said of Prince's testimony: "For me, personally, it was the farthest thing from the truth. They did a dance around a lot of questions. ... He wasn't answering anything."
An investigation released last week by the Oversight Committee found that Blackwater did not adequately prepare the guards for their dangerous mission.
Questions have also arisen over the State Department's oversight of Blackwater and two other private military contractors working in Iraq, DynCorp and Triple Canopy.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week ordered an urgent review of department security operations and sent a team to Baghdad over the weekend.
Richard Griffin, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, told the committee that, under terms of Blackwater's contract, its employees must follow the U.S. Embassy's firearms policy, which "is defensive in nature."
If there are violations of firearms policy or other regulations, individual contractors can be given remedial training, reassigned or removed from the project, Griffin said in written testimony. "Should the facts of an incident indicate potential criminal acts, further action is determined in consultation with the Department of Justice," he said.
But Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., told Prince that even if companies such as Blackwater are living up to their contract's terms, they could harm the overall U.S. effort.
Tierney quoted Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq and a counter-insurgency expert: "Counterinsurgents that use excessive force to limit short-term risk alienate the local populace."
"It does appear from some of the evidence here that Blackwater and other companies sometimes, at least, conduct their missions in ways that lead exactly in the opposite direction that General Petraeus wants to go. That doesn't mean you're not fulfilling your contractual obligations," Tierney said.