By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
Like the company he founded, defense contractor Erik Prince doesn't seem to answer to anybody.
His security business, Blackwater, has been involved in at least 195 shootings in Iraq -- but it has operated outside U.S. and Iraqi laws. Similarly, when Prince made a rare public appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee yesterday, he acted as if the lawmakers were wasting his time.
How much does Blackwater, recipient of $1 billion in federal contracts, make in profits? "We're a private company, and there's a key word there -- private," Prince answered.
What about the 2004 crash of a Blackwater plane in Afghanistan, when federal investigators said the pilots acted unprofessionally? "Accidents happen," Prince explained.
The lack of prosecution for a drunken Blackwater worker who shot and killed a security guard to an Iraqi vice president? "We can't flog him," Prince said.
The high wages for Blackwater security guards? "They're not showing up at the job naked," Prince reasoned.
What's more, Prince said, "I believe we acted appropriately at all times." It was a bold statement for a man whose company is being probed by the FBI for the killing of 11 Iraqis in Baghdad last month -- but Prince, a former Navy Seal, was a cool performer.
The 38-year-old scion of a car-parts magnate, Prince wore his blond hair in a military cut and tapped his pen as he fielded questions of those war critics who would turn Blackwater into another Halliburton. Asked if he needed a break before the final two questioners, Prince replied: "If there's two questions left, I'll take them and then let's be done."
Prince argued that Blackwater was merely doing in Iraq what the State Department hired it to do -- and if there's a problem with the arrangement, it's a lack of rules governing private contractors. In making this case, he was aided by aimless questioning by some Democrats; Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.) thought it necessary to ask Prince about Blackwater's 401(k) plan, and Rep. Diane Watson (Calif.) went on a tear about Rush Limbaugh.
Republicans, meanwhile, proved content to shill for a major donor. Prince's father helped to bankroll the religious-conservative movement, and his sister, Betsy DeVos, is a big Republican fundraiser who married into the Amway fortune. Prince himself has given $236,000 to GOP candidates and conservative causes -- typical of a defense contracting industry that, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, gave nearly $1 million to members of the oversight committee since 2003 -- 83 percent of it to Republicans.
"Blackwater will be held accountable today!" vowed Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who has received only $6,300 from defense contractors over the past 17 years.
"Blackwater appears to have fostered a culture of shoot first . . . and then ask the questions," trumpeted Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), whose career contributions from defense interests tally a mere $1,200.
Republicans took a more favorable view of their benefactor.
"We should take care not to prejudge," said Tom Davis of Virginia ($717,829).
"We should not be holding this hearing," protested John Mica of Florida ($145,454). "Therefore, I move that the committee do now adjourn."
Many Republican questions could only loosely be qualified as such. Lynn Westmoreland (Ga.) congratulated Prince for a "very good job," while Chris Shays (Conn.) credited him with a "perfect job."
"How many individuals under your protective service have been injured or killed?" asked Patrick McHenry (N.C.).
PRINCE: Zero, sir.
McHENRY: Zero individuals that Blackwater's protected have been killed in a Blackwater transport?
PRINCE: That's correct.
Democrats were careful not to even mention Prince's politics -- but California Republican Darrell Issa ($131,235 from defense interests) decided to take offense anyway. "Labeling some company as Republican-oriented because of family members is inappropriate, and I would hope that we not do it again," Issa complained.
"Well, the only one who's done it is you," Waxman pointed out, accurately.
Issa stammered and didn't complete his reply.
Though Prince read his opening statement with beads of sweat on his brow and upper lip, he quickly adapted to battle. When Danny Davis (D-Ill.) asked him to concede that Blackwater had killed innocent civilians, Prince replied: "No, sir. I disagree with that. . . . There could be ricochets. There are traffic accidents, yes. This is war."
As the hearing stretched through the lunch hour, the witness grew cockier. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) said no more than "Thank you for being with us" before Prince shot back: "Glad I could come here and correct some facts."
Prince had evidently made enough corrections, for a member of his entourage caught the chairman's eye and made a "timeout" signal. The hearing thus adjourned, the Blackwater chief picked up the "MR. PRINCE" nameplate and, with a sly look, pocketed the souvenir.