US: Chief of Blackwater Defends His Employees
Erik D. Prince, chief executive of Blackwater USA, told a Congressional committee on Tuesday that his company's nearly 1,000 armed guards in Iraq were not trigger-happy mercenaries, but rather loyal Americans doing a necessary job in hostile territory.
Mr. Prince disputed a Congressional staff report that detailed several instances of Blackwater employees killing Iraqis, fleeing the scene and then the company trying to cover up the violent episodes by whisking the Blackwater employees out of the country and quietly paying off the families of the victims.
He accused Congress and the news media of a "rush to judgment" about Blackwater episodes that left civilians dead, including a chaotic confrontation in a Baghdad square on Sept. 16 that killed at least 17 Iraqis. He said it was too soon to pass judgment on that episode, which is under investigation by the State Department, the F.B.I and the Iraqi government.
"We have 1,000 guys out in the field," he said. "People make mistakes; they do stupid things sometimes." But he added that the company dismissed or disciplined those who broke its rules and that many of the episodes that led to Iraqi deaths came to light only because Blackwater personnel reported them to the State Department.
Mr. Prince's appearance before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was his first extended turn in public. The company he founded 10 years ago has come under fire from critics in Congress and the military who portray its employees, many of them former military special forces operators, as unaccountable soldiers of fortune who are undermining the American mission in Iraq by alienating the Iraqi public.
The hearing also included testimony from two senior State Department officials who offered extensive praise for Blackwater's professionalism in Iraq and insisted that the department had acted properly in investigating cases in which the company's employees were accused of illegal acts.
Representative Henry A. Waxman, the California Democrat who is the committee's chairman, citing evidence of State Department efforts to protect Blackwater employees from investigations by Iraqi officials and to help the company compensate victims of shootings, said it appeared that the department was acting as Blackwater's "enabler."
Mr. Prince, 38, a former Navy Seal, appeared before the committee and its openly skeptical chairman in a trim dark blue suit with his blond hair in a fresh cut. He was accompanied by a handful of Blackwater executives and lawyers.
In the audience were family members of the four Blackwater guards who were killed and whose bodies were burned in an ambush in Falluja in 2004 that marked a turning point in the war.
Mr. Prince said he welcomed additional oversight and new regulations from Congress to clarify the company's roles and legal responsibilities overseas. He said the company was providing a needed service at a reasonable cost. Many Democrats on the committee disputed that, citing the $1,222 that the company charged the government for each day of work by one of its security guards.
Near the end of his more than three hours at the witness table, Mr. Prince said, "If the government doesn't want us to do this, we'll go do something else."
Mr. Prince answered most questions directly, although he demurred on specific questions on Blackwater's government contracts and on the number of Iraqi civilians it had compensated for killing family members or destroying private property.
By agreement with Mr. Waxman and Representative Tom Davis of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the committee, Mr. Prince was not asked questions about the Sept. 16 shootings in Baghdad to avoid prejudicing the current criminal inquiry.
But in prepared testimony, Mr. Prince defended his employees' actions in Baghdad that day. "I stress to the committee and to the American public," he said, "that based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone on Sept. 16."
Mr. Prince, who comes from a wealthy and prominent Republican family in Michigan, said his company's phenomenal rise came from competence, not connections. He said he had not personally lobbied the White House or Congress to get federal contracts.
Asked if his sister-in-law, Betsy DeVos, a major Bush fund-raiser, former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman and wife of the party's 2006 nominee for governor, had interceded on Blackwater's behalf, he smiled and shook his head. "No," he said.
The company had less than $1 million of federal government contracts in 2001. Last year, the company took in nearly $600 million in federal money, most of it under contract with the State Department to provide bodyguards for diplomats and visiting dignitaries, including the dozens of members of Congress who travel to Iraq each year.
Mr. Prince said he was proud of his employees, who have conducted thousands of escort missions in the most dangerous parts of central Iraq without death or serious injury to any of the people they are assigned to protect. Thirty Blackwater workers have been killed in Iraq, he said.
He said Blackwater guards strictly followed rules of engagement set by the State Department, which call for gradual escalation of force before any shots are fired.
The House committee staff found that Blackwater employees had fired their weapons 195 times since early 2005 and in a vast majority of incidents used their weapons before taking any hostile fire. The report also said that in most cases Blackwater guards fired from fast-moving vehicles and immediately fled the scene of any confrontation.
"Our job is to get them off the X - the preplanned ambush site where the bad guys have planned to kill you," Mr. Prince said. "We can't stay and secure the terrorist crime scene investigation."
He forcefully rejected the characterization of Blackwater from some members of the committee as a mercenary army. He said that contractors had served with the United States military since Revolutionary times and that mercenaries were soldiers who fought with foreign armies for money.
"They call us mercenaries," he said. "But we're Americans working for America protecting Americans."
State Department officials who testified after Mr. Prince did largely defended the government's use of security employees from Blackwater and other firms that handle diplomatic security in Iraq, saying the armed guards performed a critical service.
"Without private security details, we would not be able to interface with Iraqi government officials, institutions and other Iraqi civilians critical to our mission there," said David M. Satterfield, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq and a senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
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