WASHINGTON – Facing scathing criticism from Democrats questioning the U.S. government’s reliance on private security firms in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the chairman of Blackwater USA rejected accusations Tuesday that his company employs “cowboys” who are doing more harm than good.
Erik Prince, 38, a former Navy SEAL who started Blackwater about 11 years ago, said during hearings on Capitol Hill that his company has been wrongly painted as a band of mercenaries and faced “baseless allegations of wrongdoing.”
Blackwater, which has long been viewed suspiciously by Iraqis, is facing increased scrutiny in Washington after a Sept. 16 shootout in Baghdad involving Blackwater guards left 11 dead. The FBI as well as the State and Defense departments are conducting investigations into the shootings.
The Iraqi government has accused Blackwater of shooting at civilians indiscriminately and moved last month to bar the security company from the country.
On Tuesday, several Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said they wondered whether Blackwater employees are playing under a different set of rules – impervious to oversight and facing scant repercussions for wrongdoing.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., was one of several Democrats to ask Prince about an incident after a Christmas party in the Green Zone last year in which an intoxicated Blackwater employee shot and killed the bodyguard of an Iraqi vice president. Maloney noted that the Blackwater employee was spirited out of the country about 36 hours after the incident and has faced no charges.
“If he lived in America, he would have been arrested and he would be facing criminal charges,” Maloney said. “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.”
Prince portrayed his company as a collection of “Americans working for America.” While acknowledging some mistakes may have been made by his employees while carrying out their duties in the two war zones, he touted his hired guns as a group of courageous men with an exemplary record in protecting top U.S. officials in the war zone. He said the intoxicated employee in the Christmas incident was fired and fined several thousand dollars.
Prince said 30 Blackwater contractors have been killed in the line of duty and hundreds more have been injured. Meanwhile, none of the high-profile officials Blackwater is charged with protecting – including diplomats and members of Congress – has been killed or seriously injured.
“To the extent there is any loss of innocent life ever, let me be clear that I consider that tragic,” Prince said. “Every life, whether American or Iraqi, is precious. I stress to the committee and to the American public, however, that I believe we acted appropriately at all times.”
Prince had been expected to testify about the Sept. 16 incident, but the Justice Department made a last-minute request to the chairman of the committee, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., that the panel stay away from probing into details of the incident until the FBI completes its investigation.
Blackwater had $204,000 in government contracts in 2000, but the company has grown into a behemoth of private security contracting in Iraq, winning more than $1 billion in federal contracts since 2001. Prince, who has largely remained out of the public eye, has donated more than $160,000 to the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Sept. 16 shooting as well as several other incidents in which innocent Iraqis were purportedly injured or killed has led many Democratic lawmakers to raise questions about the role private security is now playing in the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Privatizing is working exceptionally well for Blackwater,” Waxman said. “The question … is whether outsourcing to Blackwater is a good deal to the American taxpayer, whether it’s a good deal for the military and whether it’s serving our national interest in Iraq.”
Democratic lawmakers questioned Prince about the company’s handling of several high-profile incidents in which Blackwater workers were accused of violence against innocent Iraqi civilians but faced, at worse, being fired.
Prince said his company acted appropriately by terminating the employee in the Christmas shooting and paying $15,000 to the family of the Iraqi security guard.
“We as a private organization can’t do anything more,” Prince said. “We can’t flog him; we can’t incarcerate him.”