Blackwater: Totally Reckless or Absolutely Necessary?

Critics of Blackwater say the security firm's mistakes in Iraq while protecting U.S. nationals, including the deaths of 11 Iraqi civilians in a recent incident, are evidence that the company needs to be reined in.

But despite the public criticism of Blackwater, its main mission has been an overwhelming success. Not a single American official under Blackwater's protection has been killed, U.S. authorities maintain.

Brig. Gen. Joe Anderson said Friday from Iraq that private security firms "play a huge role…a valuable role," but that he had seen Blackwater employees "overreact" in some situations.

"Are they quicker with the trigger? Are they quicker to wave a weapon, brandish a weapon, other tactics, cutting people off? All of us have experienced -- have seen different things at different times. I have seen them, in my opinion, overreact, but that does not mean it's consistently the case," the general said.

According to a U.S. Embassy report leaked to The New York Times and Washington Post, a Blackwater security guard told his colleagues "to stop shooting" during a Sept. 16 incident that left 11 civilians dead, the Iraqi government enraged and calls for greater regulations of security firms operating in Iraq.

Blackwater refused to comment on the substance of the report, but Anne Tyrell, a spokesperson for the company, said it was "based on the account of one unnamed source and is still pending an investigation."

A private military contractor, who asked not to be named because he works for a Blackwater competitor, told that "based on the experiences and casualties [Blackwater has] had, they are threading a difficult needle. They have a Herculean task and do an awful lot with little support."

He said Blackwater may be bound by contractual agreements to move diplomats in certain vehicles and at certain times, making it difficult for the company to keep a low profile and increasing the chance of insurgent attack.

In the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 16 incident, the Iraqi government ordered the company out of the country. Less than a week later Blackwater contractors were back at work, indicative of how much the State Department relies on the company's 1,000 employees for protection.

There are 25,000 to 48,000 military contractors working for 180 European and American firms in Iraq. American contractors, like U.S. officials and soldiers, are not subject to Iraqi law. Blackwater employees are further exempt from U.S. military law.

One congressman, however, is working to better regulate American contractors.

"Despite our persistent efforts to shine light on the virtual impunity with which armed contractors operate in Iraq, the Bush administration has ignored our concerns and has failed to uphold the law in the face of numerous allegations of abuse," said Rep. David Price, D-N.C.

"The Democratic Congress is moving forward on my legislation to hold rogue contractors accountable, and the administration should do its part by investigating and prosecuting criminal behavior where it occurs," he said in an e-mailed statement.

Price and others have been critical in the past of the company's connections with Republican politicians.

According to The Associated Press: "Blackwater's ties to the GOP run deep. Company founder and former Navy Seal Erik Prince has given more than $200,000 to Republican causes, a pattern of donation followed by other top Blackwater executives. The company's vice chairman is Cofer Black, a former CIA counterterrorism official who is serving as a senior adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney."

Critics point to earlier incidents in which Blackwater employees were protected after making critical mistakes.

In December, a contractor was flown out of the country after being accused of killing the bodyguard of Iraq's Shiite vice president. The company has also consistently denied rumors that it has smuggled guns.

"There has been a pattern of killing civilians by companies, not just Blackwater, for the past four years… You can't look at an isolated incident, there has been a broad pattern of contractor misconduct," said Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist and author of "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army."