WASHINGTON -- Facing scathing criticism from Democrats questioning the U.S. government's reliance on private security firms in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the chairman of Blackwater USA rejected accusations yesterday that his company employs "cowboys" who do more harm than good.
Erik Prince, 38, a former Navy SEAL who started Blackwater about 11 years ago, said during hearings on Capitol Hill that his company has been wrongly painted as a band of mercenaries and has faced "baseless allegations of wrongdoing."
Blackwater, which has long been viewed suspiciously by Iraqis, is facing increased scrutiny in Washington since a Sept. 16 shootout in Baghdad involving Blackwater guards left 11 dead. The FBI and the State and Defense departments are conducting investigations.
The Iraqi government has accused Blackwater of shooting at civilians indiscriminately. It moved last month to bar the security firm from the country.
Several Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said yesterday that they wondered whether Blackwater employees are playing under a different set of rules - facing scant repercussions for wrongdoing.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York was one of several Democrats to ask Prince about an incident after a Christmas party in the Green Zone last year in which an intoxicated Blackwater contractor shot and killed the bodyguard of an Iraqi vice president. Maloney noted that the Blackwater employee was spirited out of the country about 36 hours after the incident and has faced no charges.
"If he lived in America, he would have been arrested, and he would be facing criminal charges," Maloney said. "If he was a member of our military, he would be under a court-martial. But it appears to me that Blackwater has special rules."
Prince portrayed his company as "Americans working for America." While acknowledging that mistakes might have been made by his employees while carrying out their duties in the two war zones, he praised them as courageous men with an exemplary record in protecting top U.S. officials. He said the intoxicated employee in the Christmas incident was fired and fined thousands of dollars.
Prince said 30 Blackwater contractors have been killed in the line of duty and hundreds injured. Meanwhile, none of the high-profile officials Blackwater is charged with protecting - including diplomats and members of Congress - have been killed or seriously injured.
"To the extent there is any loss of innocent life ever, let me be clear that I consider that tragic," Prince said. "I stress to the committee and to the American public, however, that I believe we acted appropriately at all times."
The Justice Department made a last-minute request to the chairman of the committee, Democrat Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, that the panel stay away from probing into details of the Sept. 16 incident until the FBI completes its investigation.
Aamer Madhani writes for the Chicago Tribune.