House Democrats Slam Blackwater In Hearing

Erik Prince, chairman, founder of Blackwater
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.

In written testimony, Prince insisted that his guards opened fire only after being shot at, but he never got the chance to say that because it is now a criminal case, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.

The State Department has asked the FBI "to take a fresh look" at the Sept. 16 shootings that left 11 Iraqis dead, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr. The team is comprised of eight FBI agents, all trained in evidence response. They depart Tuesday for Iraq and hope to wrap up their on-site investigation in a matter of days, not weeks.

But in Iraq, it has never mattered before, reports CBS News foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer.

There hasn't been a single prosecution of a foreign security contractor since the invasion. Early on, American officials gave them immunity from Iraqi justice. And U.S. legal experts can't agree on where, or even if, they can be prosecuted elsewhere, adds Palmer.

The Sept. 16 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.

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.

The House committee's report, prepared by the panel's Democratic majority staff, also said Blackwater has been involved in 195 shooting incidents since 2005.

Read The House Committee's Report

In more than 80 percent of the incidents, called "escalation of force," Blackwater's guards fired the first shots even though the company's contract with the State Department calls for it to use defensive force only, it 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.

Waxman also cited a November 2004 crash in Afghanistan of a plane piloted by Blackwater pilots as an example of what he said is the company's cavalier attitude about how it operates.

The crash of flight "Blackwater 61" killed the Blackwater crew and three U.S. military personnel who were passengers. According to information gathered by Waxman's staff, the Blackwater pilots lacked experience flying in Afghanistan, yet they were joy riding through a valley before crashing into a canyon wall.