Blackwater USA chairman Erik Prince vigorously rejected charges from members of Congress that guards from his private security firm acted as if they were immune from the law while protecting US State Department personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I believe we acted appropriately at all times," Prince, a 38-year-old former US Navy SEAL commando, calmly told the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Tuesday's hearing was only part of Prince's problems. 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 drunken Blackwater employee after a Christmas party last year, 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," Representative Henry Waxman, the committee chairman, said at the end 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 the hearing because of a Justice Department request that Congress wait until the FBI completes 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 comprises courageous individuals who face the same threats and high-stress environment as US military personnel and noted 30 Blackwater personnel have been killed and no Americans have died under the company's protection.
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 US law."
The Blackwater chairman said he supports legislation to guarantee that his employees and those of other private security companies working for the State Department are subject to prosecution in US courts. The House was expected yesterday to consider such a bill, sponsored by Representative David Price. Price represents North Carolina in Congress, the state where Blackwater is headquartered.
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 concerned particularly that the State Department advised the company about how much to pay the family of the Iraqi security guard shot by a drunken Blackwater employee last year.
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.
Waxman also 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. "Does that bother you as much as it bothers me?"
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