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Blackwater depicted as an aggressor

A House memo says guards in Iraq often instigate violence, cover up misconduct and skirt legal sanctions.

October 02, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

washington -- Blackwater USA, the private security contractor under scrutiny for its role in a deadly Baghdad shootout last month, has fired 122 of its armed guards in Iraq since it started protecting U.S. diplomats there three years ago, congressional investigators said Monday.

The firings, most frequently for weapons-related incidents, amount to about 15% of Blackwater's current workforce in Iraq. None of those fired has been subject to any legal proceedings or other sanction, the investigation found.

The disclosures came in a memo about the investigation by aides to Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills). He is chairman of the House oversight committee, which is holding a hearing on Blackwater today. Blackwater founder Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, is to appear.

The detailed allegations, which the committee said were backed by thousands of documents, depict a security firm that almost routinely opens fire in Iraq's streets, occasionally attempts to cover up its transgressions and is frequently protected from censure and prosecution by its State Department overseers.

The memo describes incidents in which Blackwater guards eagerly rushed to battles involving U.S. soldiers; plowed their armored trucks into civilian vehicles for no apparent reason; and left scenes of violence without assisting wounded civilians.

In the 15-page memo, Waxman's staff says State Department officials ignored misconduct by Blackwater. And in one high-profile incident, the memo says, State officials were directly involved in making sure that a Blackwater employee who had been accused of killing an Iraqi guard while intoxicated was flown out of the country less than 36 hours after the Christmas Eve 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. Twenty-five 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 used to be in the U.S. military, many of them in Special Forces units. Blackwater says 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 in the aftermath of the Sept. 16 shooting. 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 that Blackwater guards have repeatedly shot at civilians with impunity.

Blackwater and the State Department have insisted that a diplomatic convoy was ambushed in the Sept. 16 incident and that Blackwater guards returned fire only after being fired upon.

In a new development, the FBI said Monday that it was sending a team of investigators to Iraq to assist in the investigation -- at the request of the State Department, an FBI spokesman said.

The State Department acknowledged Monday that one Blackwater employee involved in the incident had left Iraq, but said that the departure was for a medical emergency and that all other guards were still in the country.

The congressional inquiry -- which had access to 437 internal Blackwater incident reports as well as some State Department documents and communications about the incidents -- found 195 shootings involving Blackwater guards since 2005. It deemed Blackwater's use of force "frequent and extensive."

The investigators also found that more than 80% of the time, the Blackwater guards fired first.

"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 preemptive, 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 memo detailed the fallout from the shooting on Christmas Eve last year. The Blackwater contractor was accused of killing a guard of Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi within Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.

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