Tuesday, October 02, 2007
Congressional hearing on George W. Bush's mercenaries
Photo: Chris Curry/the Virginian-Pilot/ZUMA Press
October 2, 2007
The Bush administration's ties to Blackwater
Blamed in the deaths of Iraqi civilians, the private security firm has long ties to the White House and prominent Republicans, including Ken Starr.
By Ben Van Heuvelen
When Blackwater contractors guarding a U.S. State Department convoy allegedly killed 11 unarmed Iraqi civilians on September 16, it was only the latest in a series of controversial shooting incidents associated with the private security firm. Blackwater has a reputation for being quick on the draw. Since 2005, the North Carolina-based company, which has about 1,000 contractors in Iraq, has reported 195 "escalation of force incidents"; in 156 of those cases Blackwater guns fired first. According to the New York Times, Blackwater guards were twice as likely as employees of two other firms protecting State Department personnel in Iraq to be involved in shooting incidents.
On Tuesday morning, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, will be holding a hearing on the U.S. military's use of private contractors. When Waxman announced plans for the hearing last week, the State Department directed Blackwater not to give any information or testimony without its sign-off. After a public spat between Rep. Waxman and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the State Department relented. Blackwater CEO and founder Erik Prince is now scheduled to testify at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
But the attempt to shield Prince was apparently not the first time State had protected Blackwater. A report issued by Waxman on Monday alleges that State helped Blackwater cover up Iraqi fatalities. In December 2006, State arranged for the company to pay $15,000 to the family of an Iraqi guard who was shot and killed by a drunken Blackwater employee. In another shooting death, the payment was $5,000. As CNN reported Monday, the State Department also allowed a Blackwater employee to write State's initial "spot report" on the September 16 shooting incident -- a report that did not mention civilian casualties and claimed contractors were responding to an insurgent attack on a convoy.
The ties between State and Blackwater are only part of a web of relationships that Blackwater has maintained with the Bush administration and with prominent Republicans. From 2001 to 2007, the firm has increased its annual federal contracts from less than $1 million to more than $1 billion, all while employees passed through a turnstile between Blackwater and the administration, several leaving important posts in the Pentagon and the CIA to take jobs at the security company. Below is a list of some of Blackwater's luminaries with their professional -- and political -- resumes.
Here is a report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the activities of the Blackwater mercenaries hearing in Congress today, according to the New York Times:
“The committee staff report said Blackwater guards had engaged in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005, and in the vast majority of cases the guards fired their weapons from moving vehicles without stopping to count the dead or assist the wounded. In at least two cases, Blackwater paid victims’ family members who complained, and the company sought to cover up other episodes, the report said.”
“The staff report said that State Department officials approved the payments in the hope of keeping the shootings quiet, and in one case last year, helped Blackwater spirit an employee out of Iraq less than 36 hours after the employee, while drunk, killed a bodyguard for one of Iraq’s two vice presidents on Christmas Eve.”
“The report by the Democratic majority staff of a House committee adds weight to complaints from Iraqi officials, American military officers and Blackwater’s competitors that the company’s guards have taken an aggressive, trigger-happy approach to their work and have repeatedly acted with reckless disregard for Iraqi life.”
But the report is also harshly critical of the State Department for exercising virtually no restraint or supervision of the private security company’s 861 employees in Iraq. “There is no evidence in the documents that the committee has reviewed, that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater’s actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting episodes involving Blackwater or the company’s high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation,” the report states.”
“In the report, the Democratic staff of the committee said it reviewed 437 internal Blackwater incident reports, as well as internal State Department correspondence, and found that Blackwater’s use of force in Iraq was “frequent and extensive, resulting in significant casualties and property damage.”
“The committee report places a significant share of the blame for Blackwater’s record in Iraq on the State Department, which has paid Blackwater more than $832 million for security services in Iraq and elsewhere, under a diplomatic security contract it shares with two other companies, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy.”
JG: He who pays the bills, the United States government, is responsible for the atrocities being committed by the mercenary forces of Blackwater. They are soldiers of fortune that are not accountable to anyone, and are just a bunch of murderous thugs at the service of George W. Bush.
Oct 2, 2007 - 1:05 p.m.
More on the Congressional hearing on Blackwater.
Blackwater chairman defends his company
By RICHARD LARDNER, Associated Press Writer 5 minutes ago
WASHINGTON - Blackwater chairman Erik Prince vigorously defended his private security company on Tuesday, rejecting charges that his staff acted like a bunch of cowboys immune to legal prosecution while protecting State Department personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I believe we acted appropriately at all times," Prince, a 38-year-old former Navy seal, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
His testimony came as the FBI is investigating Blackwater personnel for their role in a Sept. 16 shootout that left 11 Iraqis dead. The incident and others, including a shooting by a drunk Blackwater employee after a 2006 Christmas party, has raised pointed questions by lawmakers about whether the government is relying too heavily on private contractors who fall outside the scope of the military courts martial system.
"Privatizing is working exceptionally well for Blackwater," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., committee chairman. "The question for this hearing is whether outsourcing to Blackwater is a good deal to the American taxpayer, whether it's a good deal for the military and whether it's serving our national interest in Iraq."
Waxman said he agreed not to probe for specifics of the Sept. 16 incident during Tuesday's hearing, upon request by the Justice Department that Congress wait until the FBI concludes its investigation. But Waxman said it was still appropriate to probe Blackwater's company policies, and whether the State Department helped Blackwater cover up Iraqi deaths.
In particular, Waxman said he was concerned to learn the State Department advised the company on how much to pay the family of an Iraqi security guard shot by a drunken Blackwater employee in 2006. Internal e-mails later revealed a debate within the State Department on the size of the payment, Waxman said.
"It's hard to read these e-mails and not come to the conclusion that the State Department is acting as Blackwater's enabler," Waxman said.
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe an ongoing investigation, said the incident had been referred to federal prosecutors in Seattle, where the former Blackwater employee now lives, but there has been no public announcement of any charges.
Prince said the individual was immediately fired and fined.
"But we as a private organization can't do anything more. We can't flog him, we can't incarcerate him," said Prince, adding that he would be "happy to see" further investigation by law enforcement.
The Blackwater chairman said he also supports legislation that would guarantee Blackwater employees and other private security companies working for the State Department are subject to prosecution in U.S. courts. The House was expected to pass such a bill, sponsored by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., later on Tuesday.
Waxman also cited a November 2004 crash in Afghanistan of a plane piloted by Blackwater pilots as an example of what he said is the company's cavalier attitude about how it operates.
The crash of flight "Blackwater 61" killed the Blackwater crew and three U.S. military personnel who were passengers. According to information gathered by Waxman's staff, the Blackwater pilots lacked experience flying in Afghanistan, yet they were joy riding through a valley before crashing into a canyon wall.
Prince acknowledged pilot error led to the crash, but also said his company's aviators often fly missions in difficult conditions. He said the military violated its own rules by loading people and explosives on Blackwater 61. But Blackwater flew the mission anyway because that's what its government customer wanted.
"There is no FAA in Afghanistan," he said.
Throughout the hearing, Prince defended his staff as courageously defending U.S. diplomats overseas. He said 30 Blackwater contractors have been killed in action and no Americans have died while in its protection.
"We're the targets of the same ruthless enemies that have killed more than 3,800 American military personnel and thousands of innocent Iraqis," he said, sitting alone at the witness table.
Directly behind Prince sat Stephen Ryan, an attorney with the law firm McDermott Will & Emery.
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., the committee's top Republican, said the State Department is "trying to get it right," but its oversight of security contractors "seems to have some blind spots as well," according to his opening statement.
There's little data on contractor performance, Davis said, "so it's impossible to know if one company's rate of weapons related incidents is the product of a dangerous 'cowboy' culture or the predictable result of conducting higher-risk missions."
Davis said concentrating only on Blackwater won't answer the complex questions surrounding the use of security contractors.
"Nor are we likely to learn much by focusing on one sensational incident still under investigation," Davis said.
Prince rejected a claim in a congressional report released Monday, saying Blackwater does not engage in "offensive or military missions, but performs only defensive security functions."
He also disputed the math that concludes security contractors cost far more than American forces to protect U.S. diplomatic personnel. In its report, Waxman's committee said Blackwater charges the government $1,222 each day for a single security contractor, which works out to $445,000 on an annual basis. That's six times the cost of a U.S. soldier, the report said.
Prince said there's a large amount of expensive training for military personnel that the government pays for, but is not calculated in these unflattering estimates of what his company charges.
"That sergeant doesn't show up naked and untrained," Prince said.
Blackwater, founded in 1997 by Prince and headquartered in Moyock, N.C., is the largest of the State Department's three private security contractors with nearly 1,000 personnel working in Iraq. The others are Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, both based in Washington's northern Virginia suburbs.
Blackwater has had more shooting incidents than the other two companies combined, according to Waxman's report.
Among the Monday report's most serious charges was that Blackwater contractors sought to cover up a June 2005 shooting of an Iraqi man and the company paid — with State Department approval — the families of others inadvertently killed by its guards.