U.S. security contractor Blackwater defended its role in Iraq on Tuesday but skeptical lawmakers took aim at the company over a series of incidents, including a September 16 shooting that killed 11 Iraqis.
In a testy, partisan hearing, Democrats denounced the contractor for aggressive behavior. The State Department came under fire too with Republican Rep. Tom Davis accusing it of "blind spots" in its oversight of Blackwater.
Blackwater founder and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince told the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that his staff acted "appropriately" on September 16 in a very complex war zone.
"There has been a rush to judgment based on inaccurate information, and many public reports have wrongly pronounced Blackwater's guilt for the deaths of varying numbers of civilians," Prince said.
"Congress should not accept these allegations as truth until it has the facts," added Prince, who said not one U.S. government employee under his company's protection had been killed in Iraq.
Iraq's government has been strongly critical of Blackwater and has called the shooting incident a crime.
Committee chair Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California, said there were serious questions about Blackwater's performance and the September 16 shooting was just the latest in a number of "troubling" incidents.
"Is Blackwater, a private military contractor, helping or hurting our efforts in Iraq?" Waxman asked. "Blackwater will be accountable."
Blackwater, which has received U.S. government contracts worth more than a billion dollars since 2001, is under intense scrutiny over its security work in Iraq, where Prince said the North Carolina firm had about 1,000 personnel.
CHRISTMAS EVEN INCIDENT
The hearing comes amid growing questions over the role of
private contractors in Iraq and whether the U.S. government relies too heavily on outsiders to perform jobs traditionally done by the military.
The major contractor in Iraq, a former subsidiary of Halliburton, has drawn the scrutiny of auditors and the Justice Department over its billing practices for fuel, dining and laundry services.
New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney upbraided Prince over a Christmas Eve incident in which a security guard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi was killed by an allegedly drunken Blackwater contractor, who was then flown out of Iraq and faced no charges, according a document released by committee on Monday.
"Why are we privatizing our military to an organization that has been aggressive and in some cases reckless in the handling of their duties?" Maloney asked.
Blackwater fired the man and the incident was referred to the U.S. Justice Department for investigation.
"If he lived in America, he would have been arrested and he would be facing criminal charges. If he was a member of our military, he would be under a court-martial. But it appears to me that Blackwater has special rules," Maloney said.
A report prepared by committee staff listed 195 shooting incidents involving Blackwater in Iraq from the start of 2005 until September 12 of this year, an average of 1.4 per week.
Of those, there were 16 Iraqi casualties and 162 cases with property damage. In 84 percent of the incidents, Blackwater fired first, said the report.
There are at least three investigations into the September 16 Blackwater incident, which occurred while the contractor was protecting U.S. Embassy staff in a convoy through Baghdad.
Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican from Blackwater's home state of North Carolina, said it was irresponsible to hold such a "knee-jerk" hearing when investigations were taking place.
The State Department's diplomatic security office is investigating the September 16 incident along with the FBI, the Pentagon and a joint Iraq-U.S. team.
The Department has also sent its own high-level panel this week to Baghdad to look at protective security overall and whether the correct procedures are being followed.