- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The head of Blackwater yesterday defended the private security company’s record of policing its rogue employees while protecting U.S. government personnel in the Iraq war zone.

“If there is any sort of discipline problem, whether it’s bad attitude, a dirty weapon, riding someone’s bike that’s not his, we fire them,” said Erik Prince, the 38-year-old chairman and chief executive of Blackwater USA.

VIDEO:Blackwater CEO defends actions in Iraq

But, although the former Navy SEAL said his employees are held internally accountable to a very high standard, Blackwater does not have the legal authority to jail its own personnel, he said.

“We fire them; we can fine them. But we can’t do anything else,” Mr. Prince told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Blackwater, like other private security companies in Iraq, is tasked with escorting State Department personnel, reconstruction officials, press and other private civilians into the war zone to work, then bring them safely back.

The clients — known as “the package” — travel in convoys of armored cars, traveling at high speeds through traffic on debris-strewn streets. They are routinely fired upon with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades and are targeted by car bombs, roadside bombs and kidnappers.

In 2006 and 2007, Blackwater conducted 8,373 security details to areas outside the Green Zone in Baghdad. The teams, Mr. Prince said, come under attack daily, and in order to ensure the safety of their clients, they would fire at threats.

“To the extent there is any loss of innocent life ever — let me be clear that I consider that tragic,” he said.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, said the inevitable redeployment of U.S. military out of the Iraqi urban battle space will “only increase the need for well-trained and well-managed private security forces.”

If the military had to perform the same jobs the security contractors are doing, it would have to put thousands more boots on the ground, said Doug Brooks, president of the International Peace Operations Association, which counts Blackwater as a member.

“They can do it, using military police and special forces, but that really is not what you want to use your special forces for,” he said. “You want them going after insurgents.”

Mr. Prince’s defense of his company comes as the FBI and the Department of Justice investigate a Sept. 16 incident in which 11 Iraqis were killed in a shootout by Blackwater guards protecting a State Department convoy traveling through Baghdad.

Democratic lawmakers at the hearing described several Blackwater shooting incidents to highlight the dangers of using private security in conflicts involving the U.S. military and the lack of oversight and accountability over such firms.

“Privatizing is working exceptionally well for Blackwater. The question for this hearing is whether outsourcing to Blackwater is a good deal for American taxpayers, the military and our national interest in Iraq,” said committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat.

The North Carolina-based company has received over $1 billion in federal contracts since 2000. It has some 1,000 people working in Iraq, mostly for State Department protection-services contracts.

The lawmakers agreed not to question Mr. Prince about the Sept. 16 incident, as it is under investigation.

The gunfight outraged the Iraqi government and pushed it to demand a change to the law signed by former Coalition Provisional Authority Administrator L. Paul Bremer III that grants U.S. armed security guards immunity from prosecution in Iraq.

FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said yesterday that at the request of the State Department, the bureau is sending a team to Iraq to assist in the ongoing investigation.

Reacting to statements that Blackwater became known as a “cowboy” outfit with aggressive guards, Mr. Prince strongly defended his firm, emphasizing it never lost a client during any of its thousands of missions in the Iraqi war zone in the past three years.

Democratic Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York and Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland questioned Mr. Prince on how a Blackwater guard in 2006 could get drunk, fatally shoot an Iraqi guard to the Iraqi vice president, then be whisked out of the country without facing a trial.

“We fired him. We fined him. 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,” answered Mr. Prince, who sat alone during the hearing.

Mr. Prince said he would welcome and encourage increased accountability through the expanded use of the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which comes under the Department of Justice.

Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican, criticized the State Department and said it must do a better job of enforcement and holding contractors accountable. But he also lashed out at what he called armchair quarterbacking of Blackwater.

“Some members who have never been there are passing judgment on what we’re doing over there. They’re behind a desk with no sense of what’s happening over there,” he said.

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