We cannot continue to risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of American troops and spend billions of taxpayer dollars on a mission in Iraq while undermining this same mission through the sanctioning of a shadow military of mercenary forces who operate in a vacuum of any kind of law or accountability. The questionable and careless practices of Blackwater USA and other private security firms are endangering the credibility of U.S. troops during a time when cooperation with the Iraqi people and government is critical for our success. The extent of this threat cannot be underscored enough--a senior U.S. military official has even asserted that the impact of the actions of Blackwater on Iraqi attitudes toward our troops will 'hurt us badly.'
During a recent hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, I questioned Erik Prince, CEO of Blackwater USA , about his company's policy of 'shoot first--and sometimes kill--and then ask questions later.' I found his responses to my questions, as well as to those posed by my colleagues, to be very unsettling. At that same hearing, I called upon officials of the State Department to start holding these private security firms accountable.
I was initially encouraged by the actions taken by the State Department in response to the controversy surrounding the shooting of 17 Iraqi civilians last month by Blackwater employees, including inviting the FBI to investigate the shooting and enacting new policies--such as installing cameras on vehicles--to help ensure responsible behavior.
It is unfortunate that these actions now appear to be nothing more than thinly-veiled steps to avoid a PR scandal, rather than the substantive actions needed to ensure the safety of U.S. troops and the integrity of our mission. I sincerely hope that this is not the case. It has come to light that the State Department granted limited immunity to the Blackwater guards involved in the September 16 th shooting, complicating any possibility that the guards will be subjected to prosecution under U.S. law or--once again--any kind of accountability.
II am deeply concerned that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who appeared before the Committee last week, did not mention that Blackwater personnel were refusing to speak with the FBI under the immunity deal offered by the State Department. It does not bode well that in such a high-profile case, the Secretary of State would omit these details, implying that she was either unaware of the circumstances or was intentionally withholding this information from Congress.
I once again call upon the State Department to enact real standards of accountability for private security contractors in Iraq. For the sake of the lives of our troops and of Iraqi civilians, we cannot continue to allow these companies to slip through the cracks of Justice.