WASHINGTON – Blackwater USA, the private security contractor under scrutiny for its role in a deadly Baghdad shootout in September, has sacked 122 of its armed guards in Iraq since it started protecting U.S. diplomats there nearly three years ago, congressional investigators said Monday.
The firings, most frequently for weapons-related incidents, amount to more than one-seventh of Blackwater’s current work force in Iraq. None of the people fired has been subject to any legal proceedings or other sanction, the investigation found.
The disclosures came in a memorandum about the investigation by aides to Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on Blackwater today. Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL and Blackwater’s founder, is expected to appear.
The allegations, which the committee said are backed by thousands of documents, depict a security enterprise that almost routinely opens fire in Iraq’s streets, occasionally attempts to cover up its transgressions and frequently is protected from censure and prosecution by U.S. State Department overseers.
In a new development, the FBI said Monday it was sending a team of investigators to Iraq to assist in the investigation. A spokesman said the assistance was being sent at the request of the State Department.
The committee memo describes incidents in which Blackwater guards eagerly rush to battles involving U.S. soldiers; plow armored trucks into civilian vehicles for no apparent reason; and leave the scenes of violent incidents without assisting wounded civilians.
In the 15-page memo, Waxman’s staff said State Department officials either ignored misconduct by Blackwater or – in at least one high-profile incident – were directly involved in making sure a Blackwater employee accused of killing an Iraqi guard while intoxicated was flown out of the country fewer than 36 hours after the shooting.
“Even in cases involving the death of Iraqis, it appears that the State Department’s primary response was to ask Blackwater to make monetary payments to ‘put the matter behind us,’ ” the memo said.
It added that the most serious consequence for misconduct appeared to be termination of employment.
Of the 122 firings, 28 were for weapons-related incidents, including two for improperly shooting at Iraqis and one for threatening Iraqis with a firearm. Another 25 people were discharged for drug and alcohol violations and 16 for “inappropriate/lewd conduct.” Ten others were dismissed for aggressive and violent behavior.
Most of Blackwater’s armed contractors in Iraq are former U.S. military service members, including many who served in Special Forces units. Blackwater insists, however, that it does not directly recruit from active duty military personnel.
A State Department spokesman would not comment on the specific allegations made in the Waxman memo. A Blackwater spokeswoman said she expected the issues to be addressed by officials at today’s hearing.
The congressional allegations are particularly sensitive coming in the aftermath of the Sept. 16 shooting, in which Iraqi officials have accused Blackwater contractors of firing without provocation. The Iraqi government has attempted to strip the company of its ability to do business in the country, alleging Blackwater guards repeatedly have shot at civilians with impunity.
Both Blackwater and the State Department have insisted a diplomatic convoy was ambushed in the incident, and that Blackwater guards only returned fire after being fired upon.
The State Department acknowledged Monday that one Blackwater employee involved in the incident has left Iraq but said the departure was for a medical emergency and that all others are still in the country.
The congressional investigation – which had access to 437 internal Blackwater incident reports as well as some State Department documents and communications about the incidents – found there have been 195 shootings involving Blackwater guards since 2005, a rate investigators deemed “frequent and extensive.”
The investigators also found Blackwater guards were returning fire in just 16 percent of those incidents. In the other 163 occasions, more than 80 percent of the time, the Blackwater guards fired first, the staff said.
“Blackwater is legally and contractually bound to only engage in defensive uses of force to prevent ‘imminent and grave danger’ to themselves or others,” the memo said. “In practice, however, the vast majority of Blackwater weapons discharges are pre-emptive, with Blackwater forces firing first at a vehicle or suspicious individual prior to receiving any fire.”
In what appeared to be the most serious allegation, the committee staff detailed the fallout from a Christmas Eve 2006 shooting within the fortified Green Zone, in which a Blackwater contractor who had been drinking allegedly shot and killed a guard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi.
According to Blackwater and State Department documents acquired by the committee, the Blackwater guard immediately was dismissed, but arrangements were made for him to be flown out of Iraq.
The staff memo said that the State Department was informed of the travel plans and that the itinerary back to the U.S. was approved by State’s regional security officer.
In addition, according to an e-mail obtained by the committee, one of the most senior officials in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad suggested paying the family of the slain guard $250,000 in order to “avoid this whole thing becoming even worse.”
“I think a prompt pledge and apology – even if they want to claim it was accidental – would be the best way to assure the Iraqis don’t take steps, such as telling Blackwater that they are no longer able to work in Iraq,” said the e-mail, sent by a senior embassy official and quoted by the congressional staff memo.
The department’s diplomatic security service insisted the figure was too high. The day after Christmas, State Department and Blackwater officials agreed the company would pay the family $15,000.
Today’s committee hearing, which will include several senior State Department officials, including David M. Satterfied, the department’s coordinator for Iraq policy, is also expected to question whether Blackwater has been awarded security contracts in part through political ties to the Bush administration.
According to the congressional investigators, Blackwater won more than $1 billion in contracts from 2001 to 2006, including $593.6 million in 2006. The memo alleges that more than half of the total has been awarded “without full and open competition” and noted that the family of Prince, the Blackwater founder, have been major Republican contributors.