It was a major talking point for Erik Prince at yesterday's Blackwater hearing: Blackwater contractors discharged their weapons during only about one percent of the 16,000 missions they've undertaken since 2005. Relying on his company's statistics, Blackwater owner/CEO pointedly told the House oversight committee that his contractors fired their guns an average of 1.4 times a week, a discharge rate hardly befitting the company's reputation for recklessness.
Prince may have accurately reported his company's weapons-discharge statistics to the committee. But, reports Steve Fainaru in The Washington Post, contract employees for private-security companies in Iraq, including Blackwater, frequently under-report how many often they open fire.
[T]wo former Blackwater security guards said they believed employees fired more often than the company has disclosed. One, a former Blackwater guard who spent nearly three years in Iraq, said his 20-man team averaged "four or five" shootings a week, or several times the rate of 1.4 incidents a week reported by the company. The underreporting of shooting incidents was routine in Iraq, according to this former guard.
"The thing is, even the good companies, how many bad incidents occurred where guys involved didn't say anything, because they didn't want to be questioned, or have any downtime today to have to go over what happened yesterday?" he said. "I'm sure there were some companies that just didn't report anything."
Defense and State Department officials conceded that the terms of most contracts require the security firm to report their shooting incidents, but in practice, few comply. The apparent silence among contractors has led to a lack of understanding by the U.S. about the true rates of contractor violence in Iraq. Last year, for instance, officials with the Army Corps of Engineers grew concerned that their bodyguards from Aegis, a British-run firm, had turned "out of control" because of their high numbers of reported shootings. But a closer look determined that Aegis only appeared trigger-happy because of its high pace of operations and under-reporting by its competitors. Functionally, whether or not contractors tell responsible officials in the State or Defense Departments about their shooting incidents "is up to them," according to an ex-ACE program manager.
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The senators did their best to wring more information from Jack Goldsmith about the administration's warrantless surveillance program during today's hearing. It was Goldsmith's legal analysis, after all, which led to the Justice Department leadership's revolt in 2004. But it was a mixed result.
Since the beginning of this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee has been seeking documents from the Justice Department and the White House about the legal basis for the program. They're still waiting.
And today, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) tried a more modest tack. He tried to get Goldsmith to say what Constitutional principle had been violated by the program. Goldsmith replied that the executive branch had told him that he couldn't discuss any aspect of his legal analysis. Specter asked again, and Goldsmith again said that he'd been instructed not to.
Goldsmith did manage to add some details, however. He revealed that only four lawyers at the Justice Department were permitted to examine the program -- that's including the attorney general and Goldsmith himself. When asked why the administration had so restricted that access, he said that it was probably because they did not want the legal analysis (that had, until Goldsmith, allowed the program to go forward) scrutinized.
As it was, he said, the basis for the program was "a legal mess" when he took over the Office of Legal Counsel in 2003 -- the "biggest," he said, he'd ever encountered.
If the House ethics committee doesn't investigate the Coconut Road earmark that someone slipped in to a 2005 highway bill at the behest of then-transportation chair Rep. Don Young (R-AK), then a watchdog group may file a lawsuit to get to the bottom of it.
The non-partisan Taxpayers for Common Sense called on the House ethics committee to review how $10 million listed for a highway widening project ended up making its way to a project benefiting a developer and major Young campaign contributor after both chambers voted on the bill. But despite the fact that the change seems a blatant violation of House rules, chances are the infamously inert ethics committee won't jump to action.
Watchdog group Public Citizen told The Hill that it would consider taking the matter before a judge if the ethics committee doesn't act.
Perhaps it slipped Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-CA) mind when he was detailing Blackwater CEO Erik Prince's Republican bona fides*, but Prince is not only a supporter of Republican candidates. Last summer, he and his wife shelled out $10,000 in contributions for a Green.
It was part of an effort by connected Republicans (lobbyists and millionaire CEOs among them) to recruit Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli to enter the 2006 Senate race. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) was trailing Dem moderate Bob Casey in the polls -- and Romanelli, the scheme went, could take some of those liberal votes away from Casey.
Ultimately Republicans raised more than $150,000 for Romanelli (who once told me, "This is America, money is like air. It's out there. You just have to be tenacious enough to go get it.") in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to get him on the ballot.
*Update: Actually, Prince's Green contributions didn't slip Issa's mind. Or rather, Issa appeared to at least be remotely familiar with them -- which, unfortunately, ended up making him look rather silly. Here's Issa during a second round of questioning:
Amb. Satterfield has a unique vantage point here. In 2005, he was the deputy chief of mission in Baghdad -- the No. 2 official at the U.S. Embassy. During that time, the Democratic staff on the committee determined (pdf), Blackwater personnel shot and killed an "innocent bystander" in the central-south city of al-Hilla. According to a State Department email that the committee obtained, the Blackwater guards "failed to report the shooting, covered it up" and were subsequently fired. But there wasn't evidence that State investigated, although Satterfield said State "thoroughly" investigates each discharge of a firearm. So, Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA), wanted to know: was there an investigation of the al-Hilla incident?
"We will get back to you," Satterfield said.
Lynch was incredulous. Didn't Satterfield, the former deputy chief of mission, recall whether the embassy investigated an improper shooting and subsequent apparent cover-up? "Not with the detail it deserves," he said. "I would prefer to respond to you in writing." Pressed repeatedly, Satterfield finally said he "cannot recall" if the incident was ever investigated.
Waxman complained that the committee received "a better response from Blackwater than the State Department."
Diplomatic security chief Richard Griffin, at long last, confirmed Blackwater's rules of engagement for dealing with potential vehicular threats. The bottom line? "One does not have to wait until the protectee or co-worker is physically harmed before taking action," Griffin said. His account corroborated one given by Blackwater CEO Erik Prince during Prince's testimony
On the back of every motorcade, State's Griffin said, there should be a warning in Arabic and English to stay back, with lights and sirens indicating drivers not to approach. Security officials are supposed to give hand signals and verbal commands to approaching vehicles to stay back. "If they still haven't gotten the driver's attention," security officials will shoot flares or shine a bright light into the vehicle. If the driver continues, Blackwater guards might "throw a bottle of water" at the car, and from there, if "that all fails," the guards are to fire into the radiator to disable the car. Should that not work, the guards are authorized to shoot into the windshield. It's "an escalation of force policy," Griffin said.
Blackwater CEO Erik Prince might have been unable to shed light on it. But William H. Moser, the deputy assistant secretary for logistics management, confirmed that in 2004, Blackwater received a "sole-source" contract for security -- in other words, a no-bid contract.
It was an "urgent situation," Moser explained. In 2004, the State Department had to make a rapid transition to assume diplomatic responsibilities with the demise of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and so "we decided to do a sole-source contract for Blackwater's services." He said that State was uncomfortable with the award, and asked the inspector-general to perform an audit at the end of 2004 -- which found that Blackwater had overbilled State for an undisclosed amount of money. (The company charged the government separately for "drivers" and "security specialists" who were in fact the same people.)
The next year, Blackwater was incorporated into State's Worldwide Protective Services contracting process, and its contract was "competitively awarded."
Blackwater CEO Erik Prince completed his testimony, and now State Department officials are explaining the scope of their contract with Blackwater.
Ambassador David Satterfield, Condoleezza Rice's special adviser on Iraq, wanted to emphasize "how seriously" Secretary Rice takes investigating the September 16 incident. He announced that Ambassador Patrick Kennedy -- a longtime diplomat and intelligence official -- is opening a separate investigation into State's broader practices in Iraq, including "how we provide security for our employees, including the rules of engagement" and the relevant laws that apply.
Unfortunately for Satterfield, the next State representative, Richard Griffin, the assistant secretary for diplomatic security -- whose bureau hired Blackwater in Iraq -- didn't appear as eager to shed light on an arguably antecedent incident: the December 2006 shooting by a drunken Blackwater employee of a guard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi. Why, Waxman wanted to know, did the State Department facilitate the departure of the Blackwater contractor from Iraq?
"It's not appropriate for me to comment," Griffin said, citing an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department. (In which, it's worth saying, no charges have yet been brought.) That individual "no longer had reason to be in Iraq" was about all that Griffin would say. "The area about what laws are available for prosecution is very murky," he added. "Lack of clarity is part of the problem."
So, Waxman asked, was there any question among state officials whether a potential crime had occurred? "That's your judgment as to what happened," Griffin said. "I was not there. That's why the Justice Department is investigating." Griffin added that he doesn't know what State has told the Justice Department about the incident.
Two bits of testimony Prince would come to regret: He said earlier today that Blackwater gets about 90 percent of its business from federal contracts, and he said that, "as an example," under some of the contracts Blackwater has, it earns about a 10 percent profit margin. But Prince balked at saying how much money Blackwater actually makes in Iraq. Since the beginning of the war, Blackwater has been awarded contracts worth roughly $1 billion. "We're a private company," he said. "The key word there is private."
Reps. Peter Welch (D-VT) and Christopher S. Murphy (D-CT) pounded on the question. "How can you say that information isn't relevant?" Murphy said, saying "my constituents pay 90 percent of your salary. Welch, "just trying to do the math," pointed out that 10 percent of $1 billion is $100 million, but Prince repeatedly backed off the figure, saying that he couldn't factor in "depreciation" off the top of his head for when, for instance, Blackwater loses armored cars or helicopters. Murphy said Prince's plea of ignorance is "hard to believe."
Prince's reply? "I'm not a financially driven guy." He did, however, offer that, last year, his salary was in the ballpark of $1 million.
Blackwater CEO Erik Prince said his "understanding" is that his company is subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act and the War Crimes Act. Well, asked Betty McCollum (D-MN), is the State Department, who hired Blackwater, under the UCMJ?
"I wouldn't be presumptuous to answer for the State Department," Prince replied. So it's just a "feeling" Prince has, that Blackwater is under the UCMJ, McCollum asked? "Legal opinions I respect" indicate as such, he said. But he couldn't state that for a fact? "That's correct."