By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Blackwater security contractors in Iraq have been involved in at least 195 "escalation of force" incidents since early 2005, including several previously unreported killings of Iraqi civilians, according to a new congressional account of State Department and company documents.
In one of the killings, according to a State Department document, Blackwater personnel tried to cover up what had occurred and provided a false report. In another case, involving a Blackwater convoy's collision with 18 civilian vehicles, the firm accused its own personnel of lying about the event.
The State Department made little effort to hold Blackwater personnel accountable beyond pressing the company to pay financial compensation to the families of the dead, the documents indicate. In a case involving a drunken Blackwater employee who killed a security guard to one of Iraq's vice presidents last Christmas Eve, U.S. government personnel helped negotiate a financial settlement and allowed the employee to depart Iraq.
Details of these and other incidents were released yesterday by the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), after the committee's staff examined hundreds of internal Blackwater and State Department documents. Erik Prince, Blackwater's chairman, and David M. Satterfield, the State Department's Iraq coordinator, are scheduled to testify today at a hearing before the committee.
On the eve of the hearing, the FBI announced that it is sending a team of agents to assist the State Department in investigating the alleged killing of at least 11 Iraqi civilians by Blackwater personnel on Sept. 16.
That incident sparked controversy in Washington and caused the Iraqi Interior Ministry to demand that Blackwater cease operations and turn over those responsible for trial. The ministry was then overruled by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who accepted a joint U.S.-Iraqi government investigation. The FBI is to participate in a separate inquiry being conducted by the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service.
Waxman and other critics have said the State Department, which has paid Blackwater nearly $1 billion for security work in Iraq, allowed the company to operate with impunity. "There is no evidence in the documents that the Committee has reviewed," a memorandum released by Democrats said, "that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater's actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting incidents involving Blackwater or the company's high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation."
In total, the documents indicate, Blackwater has terminated 122 employees under its State Department contract. According to Prince, the company currently has about 1,000 employees in Iraq.
The company, in a statement released yesterday evening, said it promised full cooperation with the FBI investigation into the Sept. 16 incident. "Blackwater USA has always supported strong contractor accountability and this latest step is a positive move," it said.
In his prepared testimony, Prince said Blackwater operates under "dangerous and challenging" circumstances and its work ensures that "more American service members are available to fight the enemy." He said the company "complies with all relevant contractual terms and conditions" and applicable laws, and has been the subject of "negative and baseless allegations reported as truth."
Committee Republicans unsuccessfully petitioned Waxman to postpone today's hearing until the investigations are complete. In their own memo yesterday, they accused him of "a rush to pre-judge and lay blame before the facts are known." While they acknowledged the "problems that arise from the use of private military contractors," they cautioned against attempts to label the Sept. 16 incident "the Department of State's Abu Ghraib."
Based on more than 437 Blackwater documents and "a limited number of incident reports and documents from the State Department," the Democratic staff memo said, Blackwater personnel had participated in 195 incidents in which they discharged firearms, with Blackwater firing first in more than 80 percent of them. At least 16 Iraqi casualties resulted.
State Department officials said yesterday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked for FBI involvement to ensure that there is no appearance of "institutional bias" in the department investigating its own actions. They portrayed Rice as determined to get to the bottom of the Sept. 16 incident and to ensure that the department, which employs Blackwater and two other private security companies in Iraq, can protect U.S. diplomats while the companies comply strictly with the rules of their contracts.
In a June 24, 2005, incident -- reported in a U.S. Embassy memo that was cited by the committee and obtained by The Washington Post -- a Blackwater security detail in the city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, shot a civilian man standing at the side of the street as the contractors drove by. "This is the case involving the PSD [personal security detail] who failed to report the shooting, covered it up, and subsequently were removed" from the city, an embassy security officer wrote in a July 1, 2005, report.
The officer, who met the victim's family, suggested that "$3,000 is the usual amount paid by the U.S. military civil affairs" in accidental deaths, "and an additional $2,000 is appropriate given the nature of the incident -- as it is the random death of an innocent Iraqi citizen."
In an Oct. 24, 2005, incident in the northern city of Mosul described in the company's documents, Blackwater personnel fired on a vehicle that appeared to be turning into their path. One of the bullets passed through the car and hit a bystander in the head. Blackwater reported the "shooting and probab[le] killing" but reported no attempt to aid the victim or his family.
A Nov. 28, 2005, Blackwater document reported that the company "terminated" two of its employees after a motorcade they were guarding "collided with or came in contact with approximately 18 vehicles -- six vehicles enroute" to the Iraqi Oil Ministry "and 12 vehicles en route back." Blackwater deemed the collisions "acts of random negligence" and said written statements by the two men were "invalid, inaccurate and, at best, dishonest reporting."
On Sept. 23, 2006, a Blackwater convoy escorting a diplomatic limousine was traveling on the wrong side of the road, and a civilian driver lost control of his vehicle while trying to get out of the way. The civilian car plowed into the limousine and crashed into a pole at the side of the road. The Blackwater team evacuated the limousine, disabled its radio equipment with gunfire and drove away.
"Team 46 would have rendered aid to the LN [local national] vehicle," Blackwater wrote in an after-action report, "however, the vehicle was in a ball of flames immediately."
An incident report by a different U.S.-contracted security firm, Triple Canopy, described the Blackwater employee's killing of the vice president's security aide as "murder." In its own assessment, Blackwater cited its employee for violating rules against handling weapons while drinking. Assessing his punishment, the company determined that "given the egregious nature of his violation, he should be prohibited from further affiliation with Blackwater and petition be made for the revocation of his security clearance."
In its own preliminary report, the embassy noted that the "regional security officer . . . authorized the release of Mr. [name deleted] to Blackwater USA."
Although a senior embassy official first suggested that the company pay between $100,000 and $250,000 to the victim's family, the committee memo reported, a diplomatic security official called those sums "crazy" and suggested that they could cause Iraqis to "try to get killed so as to set up their family financially." Blackwater eventually paid $15,000, which the State Department helped deliver to the family.