By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
The chairman of the Blackwater private security firm said yesterday that guards working for his company have "acted appropriately at all times" while protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq and accused critics of making "baseless allegations of wrongdoing" against them.
In a contentious hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Erik Prince said it is up to the Justice Department, not Blackwater, to investigate shootings and other acts of violence involving Blackwater employees and, if warranted, prosecute personnel involved in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.
"We fired him," he said of a Blackwater employee who allegedly shot and killed a security guard of one Iraq's vice presidents last Christmas Eve while intoxicated. The man was fined "multiple thousands of dollars," Prince said. But "we can't flog him. We can't incarcerate him. That's up to the Justice Department." The guard has not been charged.
But senior State Department officials testified that it remains unclear whether U.S. laws cover the contractors. "The area of laws available for prosecution is very murky," said Richard J. Griffin, head of the department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. "That lack of clarity is part of the problem."
The hearing was prompted by a Sept. 16 incident in which Blackwater guards escorting a U.S. diplomatic convoy in Baghdad are alleged to have killed at least 11 Iraqis. But discussion of that incident was prohibited soon after the session began when committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said the Justice Department has warned that testimony on the shootings could endanger "any potential criminal prosecution."
The panel released on Monday a majority-staff report that said Blackwater guards had engaged in 195 shooting incidents since early 2005, including several involving previously unreported killings of Iraqi civilians. In more than 80 percent of the incidents, Blackwater guards fired first, the report said.
Although security contractors working for the Defense Department are liable under military codes, it remains unclear whether the same laws -- or any others -- cover them when their employer is the State Department. The FBI is assisting in the investigation of the Sept. 16 incident "as if it were a criminal investigation" to protect the integrity of the process and the chain of evidence, in case the law is clarified, according to an administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A Democratic bill that would place all contractors under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act is scheduled to be considered in the House this week, and a similar measure has been introduced in the Senate. In his testimony, Prince said the act, known as MEJA, already covers his personnel.
"Anytime a contractor is abroad, he can be brought up on charges," Prince said.
Committee Republicans defended Blackwater yesterday and accused Democrats of attacking the company because of their opposition to President Bush's war policy. "Seeing what they couldn't do to our men and women in uniform, they'll simply switch targets," said Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.).
In his opening statement before the committee, Prince, a former Navy Seal who started Blackwater in 1997, said that nearly 30 of his employees have been killed carrying out their duties in Iraq. Meanwhile, he said, no one under the protection of his personnel has been killed or seriously injured. He said Blackwater "does not engage in offensive or military missions, but performs only defensive and protective duties."
"A lot of people call us mercenaries," he added. "We are Americans, working for Americans, protecting Americans."
He said contractors follow a strict protocol for "escalation of force" against Iraqis who appear to be threatening a convoy, first using "hand signals and audible yelling," and then firing flares. "Water bottles are sometimes thrown at vehicles to warn them off. If you have to go beyond that, they take shots, hitting the radiator," followed by shots to the windshield.
"Only after that," Prince said, "do they actually direct any shots toward the driver."
In one case reported by the committee, Prince said, an Iraqi bystander was hit by a ricocheting bullet fired by a Blackwater guard.
After Prince's four-hour appearance, Griffin and two other State Department officials defended the use of private security contractors on the grounds that the firms offered the fastest way to provide protective services and fill what was originally expected to be a short-term need.
Saying that he had "personally benefited from Blackwater and other private security details" while serving in Iraq from 2005 to 2006, David M. Satterfield, the State Department's coordinator for Iraq, said that U.S. diplomats there would not be able to function without them.
"We believe [private security contractors] have performed exceedingly well, with professionalism and with courage," he said.
Democrats challenged the department's oversight of the security contractors and suggested that the work could be done by the government or the military at a much lower cost. "The taxpayers are not getting their money's worth," Waxman said, and he and others said that complaints about contractors' recklessness are hurting the U.S. war effort.
Prince disputed the assertion that the contractors make much more money than U.S. soldiers in Iraq. He said contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars for work there do not reflect company expenditures on everything from body armor to helicopters.
"If the government doesn't want us to do this," he said, "we'll go do something else."