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Deaths in Fallujah: Blackwater Email Exposes Gear Shortages

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WASHINGTON - The day before four American contractors providing private
security in Iraq were ambushed by a mob and their bodies dragged through
the streets of Fallujah, their immediate supervisor sent an anguished,
urgent email to his seniors at Blackwater Security Consultants, begging
for armored cars.

"Guys are in the field with borrowed stuff and in harm's way," the
supervisor, Tom Powell, wrote in an email sent at 1 a.m. on March 30,
2004. "Which I'm very uncomfortable with, given the upcoming events,
with 5 million Shia moving into Karbala in five days.

"I have requested hard cars from the beginning and from my
understanding, an order is still pending. Why, I ask?...It is my
understanding that someone in Kuwait made a decision to go with
Suburbans that are used" instead. "Bad idea!"

Just how bad an idea became clear the next day.

But on Capitol Hill today, a lawyer for the company testified before the
House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that the email did
not necessarily pertain to the situation of the men who were killed the
following day: "I can't read his mind, sir," said Andrew Howell,
general counsel for the company.

Republicans on the committee not only defended Blackwater, but were
surprisingly sharp in their exchanges with four women relatives of the
men killed that day.

The women repeatedly broke down in tears as they recounted how the men,
all U.S. military vets, were sent out almost immediately after arriving
in Iraq, without so much as a map, much less any of the protective
equipment they had been promised. One was decapitated and two were
strung from a bridge.

Congressman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, began his questioning
of the bereaved women this way: "Although I don't think your testimony
today is particularly germane, I am sorry for your loss."

Then he asked who had written their joint statement. When they answered
that it had been a group effort, he said, "Oh, it was well-written. It
just looked like it had been written by an attorney." They are suing
Blackwater, and the company has filed a countersuit.

Issa's colleague Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican, repeatedly
admonished one of the women, Katy Helvenston-Wettengel, who seemed to be
trying to answer his question, "Don't interrupt me...I said, don't
interrupt me."

And Utah Republican Chris Cannon said he didn't see how Blackwater could
even be accused of profiteering: "Your company existed before the war in
Iraq, did it not?" he asked Howell.

Issa said: "It's absolutely clear that things have not gone perfectly
well in Iraq, but to victimize a particular company, especially a
company undergoing a lawsuit, is something we should be extraordinarily
careful about."

The committee chairman, Congressman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat,
noted in his opening statement that the contractors' deaths in Fallujah
opened America's eyes to the fact that civilian contractors -- some
50,000 of them -- were in effect also fighting in Iraq, and that many of
them are doing work done by the military itself in previous wars.

Government oversight has been so lax, he said, that, "It is now almost
three years later, and we still don't know for sure the identity of the
prime contractor under which the four Blackwater employees were working."

(Blackwater was hired by a Kuwaiti company called Regency, which was a
subcontractor for ESS Support Services, which was a subcontractor for
both the Halliburton subsidiary KBR and Fluor Corporation.)

For months, KBR had denied to the U.S. Army that it had even hired
Blackwater as a subcontractor to provide security; the contract
stipulated that only the military was to do that job.

But Tina Ballard, an Army procurement official, told the panel today
that the Army has withheld $19.6 million from Halliburton and its
subsidiary KBR after learning that it had in fact hired Blackwater for
that purpose.

According to other emails released today, the Blackwater official who
received the late-night plea for armored vehicles answered it promptly,
and with a pat on the back, but a thumbs down on the request for better

"First off, I know you are the right man for the Baghdad office and will
make this work," said the Blackwater official, Mike Rush. But "there is
no order for 'hard cars.' The contract only allows for 'hardening' and
yes, I realize that is not optimum."

An official with Regency, the company that had hired Blackwater, wrote
to Rush and told him not to sweat the situation, either, because he was
all over it: "Mike," wrote the Regency official, Tim Tapp, "Do not lose
sleep over this one."