- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 2, 2007

WASHINGTON (AP) — The founder of Blackwater USA today vigorously defended his private security company against charges of covering up Iraqi civilian deaths, saying 30 of its contractors have been killed while protecting U.S. diplomats and no Americans have died while under its watch.

“There is no better evidence of the skill and dedication of these men,” Erik Prince said in remarks prepared for a congressional hearing and obtained by Associated Press.

Prince said there has been a “rush to judgment based on inaccurate information.”

He disputed a congressional report’s finding that Blackwater is an out-of-control outfit that’s indifferent to Iraqi civilian casualties. And he maintained that his guards were responding to hostile fire when they engaged in a Sept. 16 shootout while protecting a U.S. convoy. At least 11 Iraqis died as a result of that incident. Prince’s contention about the nature of the gunfire exchange is hotly disputed by witnesses and the Iraqi government, and the incident remains under U.S. and Iraqi investigation.

“To the extent there was loss of innocent life, let me be clear that I consider that tragic,” Prince said in his prepared opening statement to the congressional panel. “Every life, whether American or Iraqi, is precious.” But, he added, “based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone.”

Prince, 38, said existing laws and regulations provide an adequate level of accountability and oversight for contractors in battle zones. But, “Blackwater believes that more can and should be done to increase accountability, oversight and transparency,” he said.

Prince did not specify what those additional measures should be.

Blackwater has nearly 1,000 personnel working in Iraq.

Prince refuted a claim in a congressional report released yesterday, saying Blackwater does not engage in “offensive or military missions, but performs only defensive security functions.”

While noting that the Sept. 16 incident remains under investigation, Prince said Blackwater guards acted properly after a car bomb exploded near a diplomatic convoy they were protecting.

After the bomb detonated the guards came under small-arms fire and some of them returned fire at “threatening targets,” which included vehicles that appeared to be suicide car bombers. Only five of approximately 20 Blackwater guards involved fired their weapons, Prince said.

Blackwater helicopters did assist in directing the convoy to safety, but the choppers did not fire their weapons, he said.

“Despite the valiant missions our people conduct each day with great success, in this September 16 instance, Blackwater and its people have been the subject of negative and baseless allegations reported as truth,” Prince said.

Yesterday, the FBI opened an investigation of the Sept. 16 incident — the latest fatal shootings in Iraq involving Blackwater guards. The FBI team was sent at the request of the State Department and its findings will be reviewed for possible criminal liability.

Blackwater, founded in 1997 by Prince and headquartered in Moyock, N.C., is the largest of the State Department’s three private security contractors. 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 a report written by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ahead of today’s hearing.

Blackwater, which has been paid more than $1 billion in federal contracts since 2001, is embroiled in a host of controversies over the conduct of its guards.

Others on the witness list besides Prince include David Satterfield, the State Department’s Iraq coordinator; Richard Griffin, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security; and William H. Moser, deputy assistant secretary of state for logistics management.

The Democratic staff of the House committee issued a scathing 15-page report on the company’s conduct yesterday, portraying the company as unchecked by the State Department.

Among the 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.

Blackwater has had to fire 122 guards — one-seventh of the personnel it has in Iraq — over the past three years for problems ranging from misuse of weapons, alcohol and drug violations, inappropriate conduct, and violent behavior, the committee report said.

It also said that Blackwater has been involved in 195 shooting incidents since 2005.

In more than 80 percent of the incidents, called “escalation of force,” Blackwater’s guards fired the first shots even though the company’s contract with the State Department calls for it to use defensive force only, the report said.

“In the vast majority of instances in which Blackwater fired shots, Blackwater is firing from a moving vehicle and does not remain at the scene to determine if the shots resulted in casualties,” it added.

The report said there is no evidence that “the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater’s actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting incidents involving Blackwater or the company’s high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation.”

The staff report says Blackwater has made huge sums of money despite its questionable performance in Iraq, where Blackwater guards provide protective services for U.S. diplomatic personnel.

Blackwater has earned more than $1 billion from federal contracts since 2001, when it had less than $1 million in government work. Overall, the State Department paid Blackwater more than $832 million between 2004 and 2006 for security work, according to the report.

Blackwater bills the U.S. government $1,222 per day for a single “protective security specialist,” the report says. That works out to $445,891 on an annual basis, far higher than it would cost the military to provide the same service.

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