WASHINGTON, (AP) – Blackwater chairman Erik Prince vigorously rejected charges Tuesday that guards from his private security firm 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, calmly 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, led to pointed questions by lawmakers about whether the government is relying too much on private contractors who fall outside the military courts martial system.
“We’re not getting our money’s worth when we have so many complaints about innocent people being shot,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., committee chairman, at the conclusion of a nearly six-hour hearing. “And it’s unclear whether they’re actually being investigated by the State Department, because we haven’t had any cooperation.”
The committee agreed not to look into the Sept. 16 incident during Tuesday’s hearing after the Justice Department requested that Congress wait until the FBI concludes its investigation.
Prince cast his company as a scapegoat for broader problems associated with the government’s reliance on security contractors and the murky legal jurisdiction. He said his staff was comprised of courageous individuals who face the same threats and high-stress environment as U.S. military personnel, and noted 30 Blackwater personnel have been killed and no Americans have died under the company’s watch.
Often leaning back to listen to the advice of his lawyer, Stephen Ryan, Prince repeatedly refused to say whether former Blackwater employees were guilty of murder and said it should be up to the Justice Department to pursue charges against contractors who commit crimes overseas.
In the case of the Christmas eve shooting, Prince said the company fired and fined the individual.
“But we, as a private organization, can’t do any more,” he told the House panel. “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.”
The Blackwater chairman said he supports legislation that would guarantee his employees and other private security companies working for the State Department are subject to prosecution in U.S. courts. The House was expected to consider such a bill, sponsored by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., on Wednesday.
At the same time, Prince said the government’s decision to include the FBI in the investigation of the Sept. 16 incident is proof that oversight and accountability already exists.
Waxman said he was particularly concerned to learn the State Department advised the company on how much to pay the family of the 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 because the investigation is ongoing, 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.
State Department officials said Tuesday the criminal prosecution of such cases was out of their hands and should be handled by the Justice Department.
“They’re the prosecutors. The State Department isn’t the prosecutors for the U.S. government,” Richard Griffin, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, told the House panel.
David Satterfield, the Iraq coordinator for the State Department, said the U.S. and Iraqi ministry established a commission to examine use of contractors in Iraq. A separate U.S.-led panel, staffed with several independent advisers, is reviewing the security practices of diplomats.
“The secretary of state has made clear that she wishes to have a probing, comprehensive unvarnished examination of the overall issue of security contractors working for her department in Iraq,” he said.
Waxman expressed frustration at the State Department representatives for not providing more information about Blackwater and its conduct in Iraq.
“We’ve had a better response from Blackwater then we’ve had from the State Department in getting information,” Waxman said to Satterfield. “Does that bother you as much as it bothers me? Or do you have to find out whether you feel that way or not?”
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 passengers. According to information gathered by Waxman’s staff, the Blackwater pilots lacked experience flying in Afghanistan, yet were joy riding through a valley before crashing into a canyon wall.
Prince acknowledged pilot error led to the crash, but 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.
Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, 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.”
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 on Blackwater won’t answer questions about the use of security contractors.
“Nor are we likely to learn much by focusing on one sensational incident still under investigation,” Davis said.
Prince would not discuss his company’s finances, although he did say his salary was more than $1 million in 2006. Blackwater is a “private” entity, Prince said, and disclosing profits and losses would give his competitors an unfair advantage.
“We’re not hiding anything,” he 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.