Report Says Firm Sought to Cover Up Iraq Shootings
By JOHN M. BRODER
Published: October 2, 2007
WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 — Employees of Blackwater USA have engaged in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005, in a vast majority of cases firing their weapons from moving vehicles without stopping to count the dead or assist the wounded, according to a new report from Congress.
In at least two cases, Blackwater paid victims’ family members who complained, and sought to cover up other episodes, the Congressional report said. It said State Department officials approved the payments in the hope of keeping the shootings quiet. In one case last year, the department helped Blackwater spirit an employee out of Iraq less than 36 hours after the employee, while drunk, killed a bodyguard for one of Iraq’s two vice presidents on Christmas Eve.
The report by the Democratic majority staff of a House committee adds weight to complaints from Iraqi officials, American military officers and Blackwater’s competitors that company guards have taken an aggressive, trigger-happy approach to their work and have repeatedly acted with reckless disregard for Iraqi life.
But the report is also harshly critical of the State Department for exercising virtually no restraint or supervision of the private security company’s 861 employees in Iraq. “There is no evidence in the documents that the committee has reviewed that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater’s actions, raised concerns about the number of shooting episodes involving Blackwater or the company’s high rate of shooting first, or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation,” the report states.
On Sept. 16, Blackwater employees were involved in a shooting in a Baghdad square that left at least eight Iraqis dead, an episode that remains clouded. The shooting set off outrage among Iraqi officials, who branded them “cold-blooded murder” and demanded that the company be removed from the country.
The State Department is conducting three separate investigations of the shooting, and on Monday the F.B.I. said it was sending a team to Baghdad to compile evidence for possible criminal prosecution.
Neither the State Department nor Blackwater would comment on Monday about the 15-page report, but both said their representatives would address it on Tuesday in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, whose Democratic staff produced the document. Based on 437 internal Blackwater incident reports as well as internal State Department correspondence, the report said Blackwater’s use of force was “frequent and extensive, resulting in significant casualties and property damage.”
Among those scheduled to testify Tuesday are Erik Prince, a press-shy former Navy Seal who founded Blackwater a decade ago, and several top State Department officials.
The committee report places a significant share of the blame for Blackwater’s record in Iraq on the State Department, which has paid Blackwater more than $832 million for security services in Iraq and elsewhere, under a diplomatic security contract it shares with two other companies, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy.
Blackwater has reported more shootings than the other two companies combined, but it also currently has twice as many employees in Iraq as the other two companies combined.
In the case of the Christmas Eve killing, the report says that an official of the United States Embassy in Iraq suggested paying the slain bodyguard’s family $250,000, but a lower-ranking official said that such a high payment “could cause incidents with people trying to get killed by our guys to financially guarantee their family’s future.” Blackwater ultimately paid the dead man’s family $15,000.
In another fatal shooting cited by the committee, an unidentified State Department official in Baghdad urged Blackwater to pay the victim’s family $5,000. The official wrote, “I hope we can put this unfortunate matter behind us quickly.”
The committee report also cited three other shootings in which Blackwater officials filed misleading reports or otherwise tried to cover up the shootings.
Since mid-2006, Blackwater has been responsible for guarding American diplomats in and around Baghdad, while DynCorp has been responsible for the northern part of the country and Triple Canopy for the south.
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