Erik Prince, the secretive 38-year-old owner of the leading US mercenary firm, Blackwater USA, has seldom appeared in public. He has never held a press conference and is only known to have given one television interview--to Fox News shortly after 9/11. When Congress called him to testify in February, he dispatched his lawyer. But on October 2, Prince found himself under oath in front of Henry Waxman's Congressional committee, TV cameras trained on his boyish face.
Prince was in the hot seat because of the infamous Nisour Square shootings in Baghdad on September 16, in which at least seventeen Iraqi civilians were killed. But Prince would face no questions about the shootings. Waxman said the Justice Department asked him not to take testimony on the incident because it was the subject of an FBI investigation. In Prince's prepared testimony, he said that people should wait for the results of the State Department investigation "for a complete understanding of that event." But the investigative process so far has hardly been impartial. The very morning of Prince's testimony, CNN reported that the State Department's initial report on the shooting was drafted by a Blackwater contractor, Darren Hanner. The next day came the surreal news that the FBI team assigned to investigate the incident in Baghdad would itself be guarded by Blackwater.
At the hearing Prince boldly declared that in Iraq his men have acted "appropriately at all times," and he appeared to deny the company had ever killed civilians, only acknowledging that some may have died as a result of "ricochets" and "traffic accidents." Prince's assertion is simply unbelievable. According to a report prepared by Waxman's staff, drawn largely from internal State Department and Blackwater documents, since 2005 Blackwater operatives in Iraq have opened fire on at least 195 occasions. In more than 80 percent of these instances, Blackwater fired first. And those are just the ones the company reported. The report also reveals an incident in which "Blackwater forces shot a civilian bystander in the head. In another, State Department officials report that Blackwater sought to cover up a shooting that killed an apparently innocent bystander."
Not surprisingly, Prince said he supported the continuation of Order 17 in Iraq, the Bremer-era decree immunizing forces like Blackwater from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Prince said that Blackwater operatives who "don't hold to the standard, they have one decision to make: window or aisle" on their return flight home. In all, Blackwater has fired more than 120 of its operatives in Iraq. Given that being terminated and sent home have been the only disciplinary consequences faced by Blackwater employees in Iraq, the Justice Department should investigate the circumstances of these firings.
Waxman's committee scrutinized one incident: the alleged killing of a bodyguard for the Iraqi vice president by a drunken Blackwater contractor last Christmas Eve inside the Green Zone. Prince confirmed that Blackwater had whisked the man out of Iraq and fired him, and said the company fined him and billed him for his return plane ticket. "If he lived in America, he would have been arrested, and he would be facing criminal charges," Democrat Carolyn Maloney said to Prince, "but it appears to me that Blackwater has special rules." Prince replied, "We can't do any more. We can't flog him, we can't incarcerate him." When asked directly whether this was a murder, which Iraqi officials have alleged, Prince consulted with his advisers, made a joke about only knowing about such things from crime dramas on TV and described the incident as "a guy that put himself in a bad situation" where "something very tragic happened."
According to the committee report, after the killing, the State Department chargé d'affaires recommended that Blackwater make a "sizable payment" to the guard's family. The official suggested $250,000, but the department's diplomatic security service said this was too much and could cause Iraqis to "try to get killed." In the end, the State Department and Blackwater reportedly agreed on a $15,000 payment.
A pattern is emerging from the Congressional investigation into Blackwater: the State Department's urging the company to pay what amounts to hush money to victims' families while facilitating the return home of contractors involved in deadly incidents for which not a single one has faced prosecution. According to the committee's investigation, "There is no evidence" that "the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater's actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting incidents involving Blackwater or the company's high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation."
If Congress is serious about investigating Blackwater and holding the firm accountable, Erik Prince and his State Department "enablers" should appear on the Hill as frequently as his industry's lobbyists have over the past several years. But their visits should begin with their right hands raised.