WASHINGTON Employees of Blackwater USA have engaged in nearly 200 shootings in Iraq since 2005, in the vast majority of cases firing their weapons from moving vehicles without stopping to count the dead or assist the wounded, according to a new report from Congress.
In at least two cases, Blackwater paid victims' family members who complained, and sought to cover up other episodes, the congressional report said. It said State Department officials approved the payments in the hope of keeping the shootings quiet.
In one case last year, the department helped Blackwater spirit an employee out of Iraq less than 36 hours after the employee, while drunk, killed a bodyguard for one of Iraq's two vice presidents on Christmas Eve.
The report by the Democratic majority staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform adds weight to complaints from Iraqi officials, U.S. military officers and Blackwater's competitors that company guards have taken an aggressive, trigger-happy approach to their work and have repeatedly acted with reckless disregard for Iraqi life.
But the report is also harshly critical of the State Department for exercising virtually no restraint or supervision of the private security company's 861 employees in Iraq. "There is no evidence in the documents that the committee has reviewed 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," the report states.
On Sept. 16, Blackwater employees were involved in a shooting in a Baghdad square that left at least eight Iraqis dead, an episode that remains clouded. The shootings have set off outrage among Iraqi officials, who branded them "cold-blooded murder" and demanded that the company be removed from the country.
The State Department is conducting three separate investigations of the shooting, and on Monday the FBI said it was sending a team to Baghdad to compile evidence for possible criminal prosecution.
Neither the State Department nor Blackwater would comment on Monday about the 15-page congressional report, but both said their representatives would address it on Tuesday in testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, whose Democratic staff produced the document.
Based on 437 internal Blackwater incident reports as well as internal State Department correspondence, the congressional staff report said that Blackwater's use of force was "frequent and extensive, resulting in significant casualties and property damage."
Among those scheduled to testify on Tuesday are Erik Prince, a press-shy former Navy Seal who founded Blackwater a decade ago, and several top State Department officials.
The committee report places a significant share of the blame for Blackwater's record in Iraq on the State Department, which has paid Blackwater more than $832 million for security services in Iraq and elsewhere, under a diplomatic security contract it shares with two other companies, DynCorp International and Triple Canopy.
Blackwater has reported more shootings than the other two companies combined, but it also currently has twice as many employees in Iraq as the other two companies combined.
In the case of the Christmas Eve killing, the report states that an official of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq suggested paying the slain bodyguard's family $250,000, but a lower-ranking official said that such a high payment "could cause incidents with people trying to get killed by our guys to financially guarantee their family's future."
Blackwater ultimately paid the dead man's family $15,000.
In another fatal shooting cited by the committee, an unidentified State Department official in Baghdad urged Blackwater to pay the victim's family $5,000. The official wrote, "I hope we can put this unfortunate matter behind us quickly."
The committee report also cited three other shootings in which Blackwater officials filed misleading reports or otherwise tried to cover up shootings.
Since mid-2006, Blackwater has been responsible for guarding U.S. diplomats in and around Baghdad, while DynCorp has been responsible for U.S. diplomats' security in the northern part of the country and Triple Canopy in the south.
State Department officials said last week that Blackwater had run more than 1,800 escort convoys for U.S. diplomats and other senior civilians so far this year and discharged weapons 57 times. Blackwater was involved in 195 incidents of gunfire from 2005 until early September, a rate of 1.4 shootings a week, the report says. In 163 of those cases, Blackwater gunmen fired first, in most cases from moving vehicles.
The report also says that Blackwater gunmen engaged in offensive operations alongside uniformed U.S. military personnel in violation of their State Department contract, which states that Blackwater guards are to use their weapons only for defensive purposes.
It notes that Blackwater's contract authorizes its employees to use lethal force only to prevent "imminent and grave danger" to themselves or to the people they are paid to protect. "In practice, however," the report says, "the vast majority of Blackwater weapons discharges are pre-emptive, with Blackwater forces firing first at a vehicle or suspicious individual prior to receiving any fire."
The report cites two instances in which Blackwater gunmen engaged in tactical military operations. One was a firefight in Najaf in 2004 during which Blackwater employees set up a machine gun alongside U.S. and Spanish forces. Later that year, a Blackwater helicopter helped an U.S. military squad secure a mosque from which sniper fire had been detected.
Blackwater has dismissed 122 of its employees over the past three years for misusing weapons, alcohol or drug abuse, lewd conduct or violent behavior, according to the report. It has also terminated workers for insubordination, failure to report incidents or lying about them, and publicly embarrassing the company. One employee was dismissed for showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Senate on Monday gave final approval, 92-3, to a defense policy bill that included the establishment of an independent commission to investigate private contractors operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The bill, which must be reconciled with a House version, faces a veto threat because it includes an expansion of federal hate-crimes laws.