October 2, 2007 / 2:47 PM / in 10 years

Blackwater on defensive in U.S. Congress

5 Min Read

(Adds more details from hearing, new quotes)

By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON, Oct 2 (Reuters) - 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 Sept. 16 shooting that killed 11 Iraqis.

In a testy, partisan hearing, Democrats denounced the private contractor for ruthless, aggressive behavior. The State Department came under fire too with Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia accusing it of "blind spots" in its oversight of Blackwater.

Blackwater founder and ex-Navy SEAL Erik Prince rejected suggestions his security team "acted like cowboys" and told the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that anyone who acted inappropriately was fired.

"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, adding his staff had acted "appropriately" in the Sept. 16 incident.

Iraq's government has been strongly critical of Blackwater and called the shooting incident a crime.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California, said there were serious questions about Blackwater's performance and the Sept. 16 shooting was just the latest in a number of "troubling" incidents.

"Blackwater will be accountable," Waxman told the committee before several Republicans asked for the hearing to be adjourned, a motion outvoted by the Democrats.

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 EVE 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 once done by the military.

The major contractor in Iraq, a former subsidiary of Halliburton (HAL.N), 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. Prince said he would cooperate with any investigations.

"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.

Prince responded: "I am not going to make any apologies for what he did. He clearly violated our policies," adding: "We can't flog him or incarcerate him."

A report prepared by committee staff listed 195 shooting incidents involving Blackwater in Iraq from the start of 2005 until Sept. 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.

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.

There are at least three investigations into the Sept. 16 Blackwater incident, which occurred while the contractor was protecting U.S. Embassy staff in a convoy through Baghdad.

The State Department's Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, defended the department's oversight of Blackwater and other contractors. "We demand high standards and professionalism," he told the committee.




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