Blackwater chair testifies

WASHINGTON – Blackwater chairman Erik Prince vigorously defended his private security company on Tuesday, rejecting charges that his staff acted like a bunch of cowboys immune to legal prosecution while protecting State Department personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘I believe we acted appropriately at all times,’ Prince, a 38-year-old former Navy SEAL, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

His testimony came as the FBI is investigating Blackwater personnel for their role in a Sept. 16 shootout that left 11 Iraqis dead.

‘Despite the valiant missions our people conduct each day with great success, in this September 16 instance, Blackwater and its people have been the subject of negative and baseless allegations reported as truth,’ Prince said.

The incident and others, including a shooting by a drunk Blackwater employee after a 2006 Christmas party, has raised pointed questions by lawmakers about whether the government is relying too heavily on private contractors who fall outside the scope of the military courts martial system.

‘Privatizing is working exceptionally well for Blackwater,’ said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., committee chairman. ‘The question for this hearing 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.’

Waxman said he agreed not to probe for specifics of the Sept. 16 incident during Tuesday’s hearing, upon request by the Justice Department that Congress wait until the FBI concludes its investigation. But Waxman said it was still appropriate to probe Blackwater’s company policies, and whether the State Department helped Blackwater cover up Iraqi deaths.

Is State ‘Blackwater’s enabler’?
Blackwater, which has been paid more than $1 billion in federal contracts since 2001, is embroiled in a host of controversies over the conduct of its guards.

In particular, Waxman said he was concerned to learn the State Department advised the company on how much to pay the family of an Iraqi security guard shot by a drunken Blackwater employee in 2006. 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.

Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe an ongoing investigation, said the incident had been referred to federal prosecutors in Seattle, where the former Blackwater employee now lives, but there has been no public announcement of any charges.

Prince said the individual was immediately fired and fined.

‘But we as a private organization can’t do anything more. We can’t flog him, we can’t incarcerate him,’ said Prince, adding that he would be ‘happy to see’ further investigation by law enforcement.

The Blackwater chairman said he also supports legislation that would guarantee Blackwater employees and other private security companies working for the State Department are subject to prosecution in U.S. courts. The House was expected to pass such a bill, sponsored by Rep. David Price, D-N.C., later on Tuesday.

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