The chairman of embattled private security contractor Blackwater USA disputed lawmakers' claims today that its employees have acted recklessly in guarding U.S. government personnel in Iraq.
"I believe we acted appropriately at all times," said Blackwater founder and chairman Erik Prince, testifying at a House Oversight Committee hearing on the role and accountability of his security company.
Committee chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., called the hearing after numerous claims of irresponsible Blackwater behavior, most recently a Sept. 16 Baghdad shootout allegedly instigated by Blackwater employees that killed at least 11 Iraqis and injured more than a dozen others.
"New documents indicate that there have been a total of 195 shooting incidents involving Blackwater forces since 2005," said Waxman. "Blackwater's contract says the company is hired to provide defensive services. But in most of these incidents, it was Blackwater forces who fired first."
Because of Monday's announcement of an FBI investigation into the Sept. 16 events, Waxman complied with a Justice Department request not to discuss it at the public hearing.
Numerous Republicans even called for the hearing to be adjourned, with some saying that Prince's firm has done a "perfect job" because no individual protected by Blackwater has been killed in Iraq. But Democrats resoundingly voted down the motion to adjourn.
"You have done an amazing task," Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., said, "and there is a huge difference from being a police officer or protected and being the military, a totally different role. I've had no one in the military say to me, 'I want to guard all these civilians.'"
In an often partisan five-hour hearing, Democrats hit back time and time again at Blackwater's behavior.
"Why are we privatizing our military to an organization that has been aggressive and in some cases reckless in the handling of their duties?" asked Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., before telling Prince, "Your actions may be undermining our mission in Iraq and really hurting the relationship and trust between the Iraqi people and the American military."
Lawmakers also questioned whom Blackwater is ultimately accountable to, hearing testimony from State Department officials on its oversight of Blackwater.
On Christmas Eve last year, a drunken Blackwater employee shot and killed a guard of the Iraqi vice president. Blackwater fired and fined the employee, while enlisting the State Department's help to extricate him from Iraq within two days and pay the victim's family around $20,000.
"It's a question of when things go wrong, where's the accountability," said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.
"We fired [the employee]. We fined him," said Prince, "but we as a private organization can't do any more. We can't flog him. We can't incarcerate him. That's up to the Justice Department. We are not empowered to enforce U.S. law."
Waxman accused the State Department of "acting as Blackwater's enabler," saying the committee "had a better response from Blackwater than we've had from the State Department in getting information."
The committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, said that the State Department's oversight had "some blind spots."
However, David Satterfield, the Iraq coordinator of the State Department, told lawmakers that "we demand high standards and professionalism."
Waxman also highlighted the 2004 crash of Blackwater Flight 61 in an Afghanistan canyon, which killed three U.S. military personnel and the members of Blackwater's flight crew. A National Transportation Safety Board report found that the Blackwater captain and first officer were "behaving unprofessionally" and were "deliberately flying the nonstandard route low through the valley for fun."
Waxman quoted a U.S. military commander who accused Blackwater contractors of "acting like cowboys," an allegation that Prince argued, saying that "accidents happen."
"The corporation hired inexperienced pilots," said Waxman. "They sent them on a route they didn't know about. They didn't even follow your own rules. It seems to me that it's more than pilot error. There ought to be corporate responsibility, and Blackwater was the corporation involved."