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Blackwater boss defends contractors' 'honorable' work

  • Story Highlights
  • Blackwater boss says his contractors have never purposely killed civilians
  • Lawmaker introduces bill to hold contractors accountable under U.S. law
  • Committee chairman asks if State Department is Blackwater's "enabler"
  • Justice Department asks committee and Blackwater not to discuss gunfight
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The founder and chief executive of Blackwater USA defended his company against allegations that his contractors were trigger-happy mercenaries Tuesday, saying that his personnel have distinguished records and have never intentionally killed civilians.

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Blackwater's Erik Prince is sworn in before testifying in front of a House committee Tuesday.

Erik Prince's appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was supposed to focus on a controversial firefight in a Baghdad square last month.

However, the hearing changed course after the Justice Department asked Prince and the committee not to discuss the incident, which is now the subject of an FBI investigation.

The request did not stop committee Chairman Henry Waxman from reeling off a list of separate allegations against Blackwater that he called troubling.

Nor did it stop him from citing instances in which he said the State Department tried to keep certain incidents quiet by instructing Blackwater to pay families of people it had killed.

The State Department relies heavily on Blackwater to protect its personnel, but Waxman said he believes "the State Department is acting as Blackwater's enabler."

Prince, a former Navy SEAL who founded Blackwater in 1997, told the committee his company had a "record of honorable service" to the United States.

"We at Blackwater welcome the FBI review announced yesterday, and we will cooperate fully and look forward to receiving their conclusions," Prince also said.

In response to some of the allegations raised by Waxman, Prince said, "If we put 1,000 guys out in the field, humans make mistakes and they do stupid things sometimes. We try to catch those as much as we can."

Prince also said there was not a single incident in which a Blackwater contractor intentionally killed a civilian. In 16,000 missions in Iraq since 2005, Blackwater contractors have discharged their weapons fewer than 200 times, he said. Video Watch the account of one survivor who lost his son »

"In that time did a ricochet hurt or kill any innocent person? That's entirely possible," he said. "Again, we do not have the luxury of staying behind to do that terrorist crime scene investigation to figure out what happened."

According to a House report released Monday, there have been 195 shooting incidents involving Blackwater forces since 2005. Democratic staff members who prepared the assessment said 122 Blackwater employees, one-seventh of the company's work force in Iraq, have been terminated for improper conduct.

Prince said that of 1,873 missions in Iraq, 56 since January 2007 involved the discharge of weapons by Blackwater personnel. No one being protected by Blackwater teams has been wounded or killed, he said.

Tuesday's testimony came as the House prepares to consider legislation amending the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act "to ensure that all contractors are accountable under U.S. criminal law" and to ensure the FBI investigates and prosecutes allegations of misconduct.

Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina, introduced the measure in January, and the Judiciary Committee approved the bill in August. Price's office said he expected the House to vote on the bill Wednesday.

At present, the act only applies to Defense Department contractors who commit felonies overseas.

Waxman, D-California, said his committee convened to determine whether paying private military contractors to provide security was a viable option to using U.S. troops, which cost significantly less.

Waxman read a list of allegations against the Moyock, North Carolina-based company and said, "If the cost is higher and the performance is worse, I don't understand why we're doing this."

A report issued Monday by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee found Blackwater has inflicted "significant casualties and property damage" in Iraq while guarding State Department officials.

Blackwater's business skyrocketed after al Qaeda's 2001 attacks on New York and Washington and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, where the U.S. government hired the company to provide security in hostile areas.

In Iraq, the State Department has paid Blackwater more than $830 million to protect its officials since 2004, the House panel's report said.

Blackwater has about 1,000 people, largely former American military personnel, working in Iraq. Thirty company employees have been killed there during the four-year-old war.

Blackwater has come under scrutiny since the shootings in Nusoor Square on September 16.

The Iraqi government says Blackwater contractors guarding a U.S. Embassy convoy opened fire on civilians in western Baghdad.

Prince has called those allegations baseless. He has previously said Blackwater contractors acted appropriately after coming under fire.

The incident spurred an outcry among Iraqi leaders and a debate over the accountability of contractors, who are not subject to Iraqi law for actions taken within their contracts, due to an order by the U.S.-led occupation government in 2004.

Though the company's contractors are authorized to use force only defensively, "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 said.

The report also is critical of the State Department. In cases where Iraqis have been killed, "the State Department's primary response was to ask Blackwater to make monetary payments to 'put the matter behind us,' rather than to insist upon accountability or to investigate Blackwater personnel for potential criminal liability."

"The most serious consequence faced by Blackwater personnel for misconduct appears to be termination of their employment," according to the report.

In one case cited in Monday's report, a Blackwater guard who was visibly drunk shot and killed a bodyguard of Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdel Mahdi during a confrontation in the Green Zone on Christmas Eve 2006.

Blackwater took the guard out of the country within 36 hours with State Department approval, and the company later paid the Iraqi's family $15,000, the report said.

Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told a Senate committee last week that the incident is under investigation by the Justice Department, but no charges have been filed.

Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut, said the State Department has to take a stronger role in overseeing private contractors.

"Blackwater, I want to say, has a reputation of being a bit of a cowboy. But I know we absolutely need protective security contractors," Shays said. "I also want to say that I feel the State Department can do a better job of enforcing and holding contractors accountable."

The State Department also uses two other contractors: DynCorp and Triple Canopy.

The House report questions whether the government is saving money by hiring out its security work. It found the government pays the company about $1,200 a day for each contractor on the job in Iraq -- between six and nine times the pay and allowances of an Army sergeant.

Waxman has been investigating the use of private security contractors in Iraq.

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A majority staff report last week found Blackwater "delayed and impeded" a probe into the 2004 killings of four of its employees in the Iraqi city of Falluja -- a pivotal event war -- and that the slain men were sent into the insurgent-riddled city without proper crew, equipment or maps.

Blackwater called the report "a one-sided version of this tragic incident," and said its contractors were "betrayed and directed into a well-planned ambush." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Suzanne Simons contributed to this report.

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