Before a congressional committee yesterday, Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince defended his company from accusations that it is trigger-happy and overzealous.
The areas of Iraq in which we operate are particularly dangerous and challenging. Blackwater personnel are subject to regular attacks by terrorists and other nefarious forces within Iraq. We're the targets of the same ruthless enemies that have killed more than 3,800 American military personnel and thousands of innocent Iraqis.
Any incident where Americans are attacked serves as a reminder of the hostile environment in which our professionals work to keep American officials and dignitaries safe, including visiting members of Congress. In doing so, more American servicemembers are available to fight the enemy.
Some committee members, according to The Scotsman, were having none of it though.
"Blackwater appears to have fostered a culture of shoot first - and sometimes kill - and then ask the questions," said Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland who called the firm "mercenaries".
Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, warned: "One senior US military official said Blackwater's actions are creating resentment among Iraqis that may be worse than Abu Ghraib."
The incident which set off all this scrutiny was on September 16th, when Blackwater USA contractors killed 11 Iraqi civilians when the State Department convoy they were protecting allegedly came under attack.
Other committee members raised questions regarding oversight and accountability of the company. The major incident under review was last year's Christmas Eve shooting of the Vice-President of Iraq's bodyguard by a drunken Blackwater contractor. In a report released before the committee hearing by the committee's Democratic majority which recounted the incident, the offending contractor was flown out of Iraq within 36 hours of the event without State Department interference. Worse, the State Department suggested to the company that it pay the dead guard's family $250,000 to keep things quiet.
Asked how the company handled this incident, Prince said:
And,sir, we fired him, we fined him, but we as a private organization can't do any 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.
Prince went on to say that he would welcome more investigation and prosecution by the Justice Department into the events of Christmas Eve, 2006.
Not all committee members were critical though, Representative Christopher Shays (R-CT) had this to say about Blackwater USA:
I am in awe of what your men and women -- and they've been mostly men -- have done to protect our civilians. I am in absolutely in awe of it.
Although the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has not made a transcript of the hearing available, the Online News Hour has select bits of it, along with insight and analysis, which you can find here.