Blackwater president acknowledges guards sometimes fire first
David Edwards and Nick Juliano
Published: Tuesday October 2, 2007

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The chairman of Blackwater USA, which is facing intense scrutiny over the deaths of a dozen Iraqi civilians last month, defended his private security contractors working in Iraq, while Republicans worked to paint the hearing as little more than an attempt for Democrats to score partisan points.

In sworn testimony Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL who founded Blackwater, acknowledged that his guards sometimes will fire first on Iraqis in an attempt to prevent "potential car bombs," although he insisted the contractors follow a strict protocol before resorting to lethal force.

The House Oversight Committee met in the wake of a Sept. 16 shooting during which Blackwater guards are alleged to have been unprovoked when they opened fire on a crowd of Iraqis, killing between 11 and 20 civilians. Details of that incident were not directly addressed Tuesdsay in order because of fears such a discussion could taint ongoing investigations by the FBI and State Department. The shooting drew intense scrutiny to the company and provoked Iraq's government to move to expel its contractors from the country.

Several committee members pressed Prince to clarify the rules of engagement and standard operating procedures that govern Blackwater guards. A report released Monday by the committee's Democratic staff found that Blackwater guards fired first in more than 80 percent of the 195 "escalation of force" incidents since 2005.

Although Prince said they only use force defensively, Blackwater guards have the authority to fire on "potential car bombs" that they deem to be a threat. Because insurgents have devised such effective weapons in targeting US troops and contractors with explosives-packed vehicles, contractors view every car that gets within 100 meters as a potential threat, Prince said.

"The bad guys have figured out how to make precision weapon," he said. "You take a car, you pack it with explosives, and you find a suicidal person who wants to drive it into the back of a convoy."

The following video is from CNN.com, broadcast on October 2, 2007. (Story continues below)


Prince outlined several steps beginning with Blackwater convoys sounding air horns and flashing their lights and sirens and firing "non-lethal" flares at vehicles approaching at high speeds. If cars continue to approach, he said, guards will sometimes fire at an approaching vehicle's radiator or windshield, away from passengers, and if that fails to stop them Blackwater guards will open fire on the driver.

Prince said Blackwater guards follow the rules of engagement that govern State Department and Defense Department security contractors, although he specified that American troops are held to a different standard.

"We do not have the same as a US soldier at all," he said.

Republican calls hearing 'repeat' of MoveOn 'attack'

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) compared Tuesday's House Oversight Committee hearing on the role of Blackwater USA guards in the deaths of innocent Iraqis with a nearly month-old advertisement attacking Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US troops in Iraq.

"I think it's been made incredibly clear by ... the Democrat side that this is not about Blackwater," Issa said in his opening statement. "What we're hearing today is in fact a repeat of the MoveOn.org attack on Gen. Petraeus's patriotism. ... What they couldn't do to our men and women in uniform, they'll simply switch targets."

The video is from CNN.com, broadcast on October 2, 2007. (Story continues below)


Issa qualified his statement saying he was not "here to protect Blackwater," and he accused Democrats of using the hearing to re-debate whether the US should have gone into the war in the first place. (Other than a few asides from the panel's most liberal members, questioning focused exclusively on Blackwater's actions.)

Along with Issa's MoveOn red herring, other GOP committee members invoked the previous military service of most Blackwater contractors in attempting to deflect criticism.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) said the "former soldiers" now working for Blackwater were serving with honor in Iraq, and Rep. John Mica (R-FL) moved that the committee adjourn before testimony even began because "they're really going after Blackwater," he said, an apparent reference to the panel's Democrats, and he accused the hearing of potentially interfering with investigations by the State and Justice departments.

Blackwater is on 'our team,' says GOP lawmaker

Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) continued comparing criticisms of Blackwater to assaults on the military, and he chastised the Oversight Committee Democrats for not calling a hearing to express similar "indignation" at insurgents and al Qaeada fighters killing Americans in Iraq. (Such a hearing likely would not fall under the committee's jurisdiction.)

He said oversight of Blackwater was fine, as long as inquries did not undermine the company's work in Iraq on America's behalf.

Congress needs to keep in mind "who's on our team and who's on their team," Turner said. "I think (the hearing) crosses the line between our team and their team."

The video is from CNN.com, broadcast on October 2, 2007. (Story continues below)