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Guards' actions defended

They shoot only when threatened, Blackwater and U.S. officials say.

October 03, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Top State Department officials and the head of their beleaguered private security firm, Blackwater USA, put forth a unified defense Tuesday against an onslaught of congressional criticism over the company's violent encounters with Iraqis.

The State Department and security officials attempted to portray Blackwater's armed guards as highly trained professionals who open fire in the streets of Baghdad only when the lives of the diplomats they are hired to protect are threatened.

At a daylong Capitol Hill hearing, Erik Prince -- the company's chairman and a former Navy SEAL -- responded to accusations of misconduct by defending his employees' performance and maintaining that the State Department was a meticulous overseer that held the contractors to exacting standards.

At the same time, the State Department's top Iraq coordinator, David M. Satterfield, praised Blackwater and said its guards had performed "exceedingly well." He denied that the department had improperly allowed contractors to evade prosecution for wrongdoing.

"We do believe that the overall mission of security contractors in Iraq is performed . . . with professionalism, with courage," Satterfield said.

The mutual defense, in back-to-back appearances before the House Oversight Committee, seemed to frustrate congressional Democrats. At one point, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois accused the State Department's top security official of parroting Blackwater's "talking points."

The lawmakers cited incidents involving Blackwater guards -- whom they accused of being "cowboys" -- and attempted to present a pattern of wrongdoing. For example, Democrats on the panel demanded explanations for how an intoxicated Blackwater contractor shot and killed a guard for Iraq's vice president on Christmas Eve, and why a company convoy had rammed 18 civilian vehicles in another incident.

But Prince, 38, who answered questions politely, sought to depict any wrongdoing as rare occurrences that his company dealt with promptly by firing the offenders.

"If there is any sort of discipline problem, whether it's bad attitude, a dirty weapon, riding someone's bike that's not his, we fire him," Prince said. "If they don't hold to the standard, they have one decision to make: window or aisle."

The high-profile inquiry, held in a packed hearing room in which spectators had waited hours to get seats, came in the aftermath of a Sept. 16 shooting involving Blackwater contractors who were protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy. At least 11 Iraqis died. The incident enraged Iraqi officials, who accused the guards of firing without provocation. They attempted to strip the company of its right to operate inside the country. In recent weeks, Blackwater and the State Department have defended the guards, saying they had acted in response to an ambush.

But at Tuesday's hearing, committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) said he would not raise the Sept. 16 incident with Prince after the Justice Department warned that doing so could compromise a just-opened FBI investigation.

Instead, the hearing focused on the Christmas Eve shooting, in which the Blackwater guard was whisked out of Iraq less than 36 hours after the slaying of an Iraqi bodyguard. Pressed to explain Blackwater's decision not to punish the unidentified contractor more severely, Prince said the company had done all it legally could.

"Sir, we fired him. We fined him," Prince said. "But we, as a private organization, can't do anything more. We can't flog him. We can't incarcerate him. That's up to the Justice Department. We are not empowered to enforce U.S. law."

The Justice Department has said an investigation into the incident is ongoing. An e-mail obtained by the committee and made public Tuesday showed that Blackwater withheld $13,067 in bonuses from the contractor involved in the shooting and forced him to pay his airfare back to the U.S., valued at $1,630.

Committee members appeared most frustrated with answers from State Department officials, including Satterfield, who at times stepped around questions about specific incidents and U.S. laws.

Asked why the Blackwater guard involved in the Christmas Eve shooting was allowed to leave Iraq, Richard J. Griffin, assistant secretary for the State Department's Diplomatic Security Bureau, was curt: "At the time of the incident, after a number of interviews were conducted, there was no reason for him to stay in Baghdad."

The State Department officials also could not say with certainty whether any Blackwater guard could be prosecuted under U.S. law.

Under current Iraqi law -- a holdover from when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority was in power -- American contractors are immune from prosecution by Baghdad authorities. The Pentagon maintains that private guards are subject to both U.S. military law and to more recent statutes governing the conduct of contractors who deploy with U.S. troops.

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