WASHINGTON — Blackwater USA is an out-of-control outfit indifferent to Iraqi civilian casualties, according to a critical report released Monday by a key congressional committee.
Among the most serious charges against the prominent security firm is that Blackwater contractors sought to cover up a June 2005 shooting of an Iraqi man and the company paid, with State Department approval, the families of others inadvertently killed by its guards.
Blackwater has had to fire dozens of guards over the past three years for problems ranging from misuse of weapons, alcohol and drug violations, inappropriate conduct and violent behavior, says the 15-page report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Just after the report was released, The Associated Press learned the Federal Bureau of Investigation is sending a team to Iraq to investigate an incident that has angered the Iraqi government.
On Sept. 16, 11 Iraqis were killed in a shoot-out involving Blackwater guards protecting a U.S. diplomatic convoy in Baghdad. Blackwater says its guards acted in self-defense after the convoy came under attack. Iraqi witnesses have said the shooting was unprovoked.
The FBI team was sent at the request of the State Department and its findings will be reviewed for possible criminal liability.
The 122 personnel terminated by Blackwater is roughly one-seventh of the work force that Blackwater has in Iraq, a ratio that raises questions about the quality of the people working for the company.
The only punishment for those dismissed was the termination of their contracts with Blackwater, says the report, which uses information from Blackwater's own files and State Department records.
The report, prepared by the majority staff of the committee, also says Blackwater has been involved in 195 shooting incidents since 2005, or roughly 1.4 per week.
In more than 80 percent of the incidents, called "escalation of force," Blackwater's guards fired the first shots even though the company's contract with the State Department calls for it to use defensive force only, it said.
"In the vast majority of instances in which Blackwater fired shots, Blackwater is firing from a moving vehicle and does not remain at the scene to determine if the shots resulted in casualties," according to the report.
The staff report says Blackwater has made huge sums of money despite its questionable performance in Iraq, where Blackwater guards provide protective services for U.S. diplomatic personnel.
Blackwater has earned more than $1 billion from federal contracts since 2001, when it had less than $1 million in government work. Overall, the State Department paid Blackwater more than $832 million between 2004 and 2006 for security work, according to the report.
Blackwater bills the U.S. government $1,222 per day for a single "protective security specialist," the report says. That works out to $445,891 on an annual basis, far higher than it would cost the military to provide the same service.
Blackwater, founded in 1997 and headquartered in Moyock, N.C., is the largest of the State Department's three private security contractors. The others are Dyncorp and Triple Canopy, both based in Washington's northern Virginia suburbs.
According to the report, Blackwater has had more shooting incidents than the other two companies combined.
The report is critical not only of Blackwater. In two cases, the State Department recommended Blackwater make payments to the families of Iraqis killed by its guards.
On Dec. 24, 2006, a drunken Blackwater employee shot and killed a bodyguard for Iraq's Shiite vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
The AP previously reported the contractor had gotten lost on the way back to his barracks in Baghdad's Green Zone and fired at least seven times when he was confronted by 30-year-old Raheem Khalaf Saadoun.
The guard was terminated by Blackwater. Within 36 hours of the shooting, the department allowed the 26-year-old contractor to be transported out of Iraq, according to the staff report.
An unnamed State Department official then recommended Blackwater pay the guard's family $250,000 as an "apology."
But the Diplomatic Security Service, the department's own law enforcement arm, said that was too much money and might prompt other Iraqis "to 'try to get killed'" in order to provide for their families, according to the report.
"In the end, the State Department and Blackwater agreed on a $15,000 payment," the report says.
The negative fallout from the event affected the relationship between the U.S. military and Iraqis, many of whom see little distinction between the private guards and American troops, the report states. Initial news coverage by Middle Eastern media of the killing said a "U.S. soldier" was responsible.
In a company e-mail obtained by the committee, a Blackwater employee said the mistake in the news "gets the heat off of us."
According to the report, the U.S. Justice Department is investigating.
In another instance, the department recommended Blackwater make a $5,000 payment after guards killed an "apparently innocent" Iraqi bystander, according to documents the committee examined. In this same case, the Blackwater personnel failed to report this shooting and "covered it up," the report states.
There is no evidence, the report says, "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."
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he has not read the report and could not comment.
The report was distributed to committee members on the eve of a hearing on private security contracting. Blackwater's 38-year-old founder and chairman, Erik Prince, will be one of the witnesses.
Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell had no comment on the specifics in the report.
"We look forward to setting the record straight on this issue and others tomorrow when Erik Prince testifies before the committee," she said.
In addition to Prince, the witnesses include David Satterfield, the department's Iraq coordinator; Richard Griffin, assistant secretary for diplomatic security; and William H. Moser, deputy assistant secretary for logistics management.
Associated Press writer Hope Yen contributed to this report.
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