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Blackwater Chairman Defends Employees

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin today with the growing scrutiny of Blackwater USA, the private security firm tasked with protecting State Department officials in Iraq. Blackwater has been in the spotlight since the shootout in Baghdad last month that killed 11 Iraqis. Today, the company's founder, Erik Prince, went to Capitol Hill. He told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that his employees work in a dangerous and complex environment.

NPR's Jackie Northam was there.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Erik Prince walked into a congressional hearing room packed with people curious to see what the famously private CEO of Blackwater looks like and what he has to say. Prince, looking every bit the Navy SEAL he was when he started his career, sat at the witness table alone and answered questions for nearly four hours. Prince had been called to testify in large part about the September 16th shooting incident in Baghdad in which at least 11 Iraqi civilians were killed. But on Monday, the Justice Department requested that no questions about the incident be raised during the hearing. Still, Prince alluded to the September shooting, saying any loss of life is tragic.

Mr. ERIK PRINCE (CEO, Blackwater USA): 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.

NORTHAM: That comment contrast with a congressional report released Monday that said Blackwater was involved in nearly 200 shootings over the past two years. And in more than 80 percent of the cases, Blackwater employees fired first, usually from a moving vehicle. Prince cast the work of his armed contractors as a noble mission. He disputed the tone of the report and the substance, saying Blackwater did not have a shoot-first policy.

Mr. PRINCE: Blackwater does not engage in offensive or military missions but performs only defensive security functions.

NORTHAM: The hearing shifted to the broader questions of Blackwater's overall performance in Iraq. The committee chairman, Henry Waxman, said that military generals in Iraq had called Blackwater contractors cowboys, and questioned whether the armed contractors were advancing U.S. military operations in Iraq or undermining them. Waxman also questioned whether the State Department, which holds the Blackwater contract, was doing enough to curtail the number of shootings. Waxman said internal Blackwater e-mails indicated that the State Department had recommended paying off the families of Blackwater shooting victims.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California; Chairman, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform): It's hard to read these e-mails and not come to the conclusion that the State Department is acting as Blackwater's enabler.

NORTHAM: David Satterfield, the State Department's senior adviser and coordinator for Iraq, testified that the department demands high standards and performance from its contractors, and does follow up on any deadly incident.

Ambassador DAVID SATTERFIELD (Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State and Coordinator for Iraq): In those rare instances when security contractors must use force, management officials at the embassy conduct a thorough review in each and every instance to ensure the proper procedures were, in fact, followed.

NORTHAM: Several members of the committee questioned the cost of private security contractors. Chairman Waxman pointed to Blackwater's explosive growth since 2001. At that time, the company made about $200,000 in government contracts. Since then, Blackwater has earned about $1 billion in government contracts.

Rep. WAXMAN: Privatizing is working exceptionally well for Blackwater. The question for this hearing is whether outsourcing to Blackwater is a good deal for the American taxpayer.

NORTHAM: Waxman said Blackwater employees in Iraq make an average of $1,200 a day, six times the amount of a U.S. soldier. Blackwater Chief Prince said that figure does not include the cost of training and equipping.

Mr. PRINCE: I don't believe it's as simple as saying, well, this sergeant cost us this much, because that sergeant doesn't show up there naked and untrained. There's a whole bunch of other costs that go into it.

NORTHAM: Prince was asked repeatedly how many of the people Blackwater is supposed to protect in Iraq, such as diplomats and members of Congress, have been killed under company's watch. Each time, Prince said, none or zero. But the hearing was supposed to be about the Iraqi civilians that get caught in the crossfire and ways to make sure security contractors are held accountable.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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