Cross-posted on Daily Kos.
This diary is an overview of yesterday’s hearing of the House Oversight Committee featuring testimony from Blackwater CEO Erik Prince and three officials from the State Department: Ambassador David Statterfield, Ambassador Richard Griffin, and Deputy Assistant Secretary William Moser. Video of the hearing is available.
This diary is also a follow up to my previous diary, BOOM! Waxman Fires a Shot Across Blackwater’s Bow!
The overview is divided into two parts: blog coverage and traditional media coverage. But first, here are my three observations that I didn’t see covered anywhere else. My observations concern the remarks of Ranking Member Tom Davis (R-VA) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH).
Davis explained away how Prince/Blackwater operated as “just performing his contract“. I think this is today’s equivalent to “just following orders”.
When Davis was explaining why the U.S. military did not protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq, he said “let me just say, troops are there, ah, are not paid to protect civilians. That’s not what military troops are trained for.” I found that remark simply stunning. Our military is not trained to protect civilians meaning you and me. If our military is not defensive, then surely the Defense Department should revert to its original name: the War Department.
Lastly, I think Kucinich was 100 percent on mark when he said “if war is privatized, then private contractors have a vested interest in keeping the war going. Longer the war goes on, the more money they make.” This rather obvious observation was ignored by all the traditional media coverage I read.
Now on to the blog coverage. As is our custom, progressive blogs including Daily Kos, Firedoglake, and TPMmuckraker liveblogged the hearing. TPMmuckraker had good coverage of the Blackwater hearing yesterday with sixteen posts during the hearing.
- They begin with Paul Kiel presenting Today’s Must Read. “When Blackwater CEO Erik Prince marches up to the Hill for a hearing today, he’s sure to be confronted a portrayal of his guards as trigger-happy, remorseless, greedy mercenaries — or as one former Blackwater employee put it, ‘lazy f**ks [who] care about one thing, money.’ ¶ Prince’s response, as indicated by his prepared statement (pdf), is to counter that with an image of U.S. military men and women ‘volunteering’ to serve their country (although for a pot of money)”.
Spencer Ackerman continues with ‘Blackwater’s Prince Digs In For Tough Hearing‘. “The thin, baby-faced Prince walked in wearing a crisp blue suit, a starched white shirt, and his shoulders square. He gave a quick smile before sitting at the witness table. An associate in a black suit behind him clapped him on the back for support during what’s sure to be an uncomfortable hearing.” I digress. Ackerman omitted from his description what Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described as “his blond hair in a military cut and tapped his pen as he fielded questions”. Not to be outdone, the other reporters fixed on Prince’s hair too. John Broder of the NY Times described Prince as wearing “a trim dark blue suit with his blond hair in a fresh cut”. Were these a deliberate Aryan reference? Continuing, “Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) started the hearing by paying Prince a backhanded compliment. So many of the scions of the nation’s ‘wealthy and politically connected families’ don’t join the military, Waxman said, before thanking Prince, who was a Navy SEAL before founding Blackwater, for his service.”
About 30 minutes later, Ackerman weighs in with this idiotic reasoning from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) ‘Attack on Blackwater is Attack on… Petraeus‘. ‘What they couldn’t do to our men in women in uniform… I’m not here to defend Blackwater,’ Issa said with the utmost sincerity, ‘but I am here to defend General Petraeus and members of the military.’ (Blackwater contractors, by the way, make on average six times more than U.S. troops in Iraq.) … ‘they’re trying to discredit contractors now.'” Issa was a one-trick dog in the hearing, yapping about how Blackwater wasn’t a Republican business, which it is. “Labeling some company as Republican-oriented because of family members is inappropriate, and I would hope that we not do it again,” Issa would later whine. To which, Waxman responded: “Well, the only one who’s done it is you.” Issa was left sputtering. Ackerman blogs on the exchange in ‘Is Blackwater A Republican Company?‘
Perhaps the largest connect-the-dots insight from TPMmuckraker came from a post-hearing post from Paul Kiel on Prince and the Republicans efforts to sandbag the Democratic candidate for senate in 2006 in Pennsylvania. In ‘Prince, Solid Republican, Also Supported Green‘ Kiel writes, Prince “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.” Issa said Prince’s support of a Green was proof that “there were people on both the far left and the far right relative to the Chairman [Waxman] who may have benefited by your company…”
The next post by Ackerman recapped an exchange between Prince and political doofus, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) who asked what Prince “meant by the ‘use of force continuum’ that his contractors in Iraq used. Are their rules dictated by the State Department? ‘Yes sir,’ Prince replied. ¶ Are they similar to the Defense Department’s rules of engagement? McHenry asked. ¶ ‘Yes, they’re essentially the same,’ Prince said — before correcting himself. ‘Sorry, that’s the Department of Defense rules for contractors. We do not have the same rules as soldiers.’
Ackerman then blogs on ‘The Case of the Drunken Blackwater Shooter‘. Prince made no excuse on behalf of a drunken Blackwater mercenary who killed the bodyguard for an Iraqi vice president. “‘We can fire, we can fine, but we cannot detain,’ was Prince’s answer. Did Blackwater help him flee the country? ‘It could easily be,’ Prince said.
In Prince: We Didn’t Get No-Bid Contracts, Ackerman recounts how Prince described the government choosing his firm as “like buying something from the Sears catalog”. In an update, Ackerman writes “Prince, after conferring with aides, said that ‘one of the contracts I said was GSA schedule was in fact sole-source.’ He said he didn’t know anything further”.
In the post, Blackwater vs. U.S. Counterinsurgency Efforts, “Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) read out a raft of quotes from U.S. military counterinsurgency experts… who say it’s better for counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq if contractors fell within the military chain of command… Prince replied, but he didn’t say that his efforts don’t come into conflict with the mission… “The broader question of whether Blackwater hurts counterinsurgency efforts, as some experts contend, went unaddressed.”
The next post, ‘Prince Equivocates on ‘Non-Compete’ Clauses‘ delved into mercenary firms recruiting soldiers from the military. Prince said “it would be upsetting to a lot of soldiers if they didn’t have the ability to use the skills they learned in the in military in the private sector.” If that doesn’t sound scary to you, it should.
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) tried to pin down Prince on ‘What Laws Govern Blackwater?‘ But really, not Prince, not the State Department weasels, nor anyone else really could say what laws apply to mercenaries in Iraq.
In ‘Prince: “I’m Not A Financially Driven Guy”‘, Ackerman writes “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.” Rep Christopher Murphy (D-CT) “said Prince’s plea of ignorance is ‘hard to believe.’ Prince’s reply? ‘I’m not a financially driven guy.'” In what I think was a major lost opportunity, Murphy should have followed-up with this question: ‘what does drive you Mr. Prince?‘
The remaining posts from Ackerman on the hearing cover the testimony of the senior State Department weasels. In ‘Why Did State Help Drunken Blackwater Shooter Flee Iraq?‘ Weasel Richard Griffin used the “it’s not appropriate for me to comment” in an ongoing investigation excuse favored by those in the Bush administration. Griffin added, “The area about what laws are available for prosecution is very murky… Lack of clarity is part of the problem.” You can say that again! Lack of Bush administration accountability is a significant part of the problem too. The State Department confirmed ‘Blackwater Got Sole-Source Contract in 2004‘ that an audit “found that Blackwater had overbilled State for an undisclosed amount of money.” Weasel Griffin explained how the State Department had ‘Blackwater’s Rules of Engagement Made Simple‘. “One does not have to wait until the protectee or co-worker is physically harmed before taking action,” Griffin said.
Finally, the State Department’s “don’t recalls” were out in full force with questioning Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) on ‘Did State Investigate Blackwater’s 2005 al-Hilla Shooting?‘ “‘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.’
Traditional Media Coverage
Here is how the hearing was covered by the traditional media.
In Iraq security firm denies trigger-happy charge by Ewen MacAskill for The Guardian, writes “The US company at the centre of the scandal over the role of private security guards in Iraq brushed aside accusations that it was a cowboy outfit yesterday, even as details emerged about a incident in which an allegedly drunken member was involved in a fatal shooting. Testifying before a congressional hearing Erik Prince, the normally secretive head of Blackwater, denied his company was overly aggressive… A former navy Seal, Mr Prince portrayed his company as professional and patriotic. He denied it was overly aggressive and insisted it whisked away clients from ambush sites as quickly as possible. ‘We only play defence,’ he said… He stressed the dangers that his team faced in carrying out their work, which was to get clients – ‘our package’ – away from an ambush site as fast as possible.”
There were updates throughout the hearings from The New York Times with Mike Nizza liveblogging in his blog column, The Lede. For example:
1:23 p.m. Mr. Prince does not like being called a “mercenary.”
“A lot of people call us mercenaries,” he said, even though “We have Americans working for America protecting Americans.” That’s in stark contrast to the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “A professional soldier working for a foreign government.”
But that’s the second definition in The American Heritage Dictionary. Here’s the first: “Motivated solely by a desire for monetary or material gain.”
With his entry for 12:31 p.m., Nizza triumphantly writes “The Times’s first article on the hearings is in.” The story is a decent piece of reporting on deadline by five NY Times reporters that was updated and expanded upon throughout the hearing. I like Nizza’s liveblog style, although professional rivalry at times seems it irk him that Waxman is quoting from the Washington Post.
Reporting for The New York Times, John Broder files ‘Chief of Blackwater Defends His Employees‘. Erik Prince “accused Congress and the news media of a ‘rush to judgment’ about Blackwater episodes that left civilians dead, including a chaotic confrontation in a Baghdad square on Sept. 16 that killed at least 17 Iraqis… Prince said he welcomed additional oversight and new regulations from Congress to clarify the company’s roles and legal responsibilities overseas.” The State Department stooges “defended the government’s use of security employees from Blackwater and other firms that handle diplomatic security in Iraq, saying the armed guards performed a critical service. ‘Without private security details, we would not be able to interface with Iraqi government officials, institutions and other Iraqi civilians critical to our mission there,’ said David M. Satterfield, the State Department’s coordinator for Iraq and a senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.” Satterfield also said he had personally benefitted from Blackwater’s protection. Conflict of interest at the State Department, perchance?
In, ‘Blackwater Chief Defends Firm‘, Karen DeYoung puts in the report for the Washington Post. “The chairman of the Blackwater… said… that guards working for his company have ‘acted appropriately at all times’ while protecting U.S. diplomats in Iraq and accused critics of making ‘baseless allegations of wrongdoing’ against them.”
Erik Prince said it is up to the Justice Department, not Blackwater, to investigate shootings and other acts of violence involving Blackwater employees and, if warranted, prosecute personnel involved in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.
“We fired him,” he said of a Blackwater employee who allegedly shot and killed a security guard of one Iraq’s vice presidents last Christmas Eve while intoxicated. The man was fined “multiple thousands of dollars,” Prince said. But “we can’t flog him. We can’t incarcerate him. That’s up to the Justice Department.” The guard has not been charged.
But, of course, the designated senior State Department weasels “testified that it remains unclear whether U.S. laws cover the contractors. ‘The area of laws available for prosecution is very murky,’ said Richard J. Griffin… ‘That lack of clarity is part of the problem.'”
Peter Spiegel reports for the Los Angeles Times in Blackwater gets a united defense. “Top State Department officials and the head of their beleaguered private security firm, Blackwater USA, put forth a unified defense Tuesday against an onslaught of congressional criticism over the company’s violent encounters with Iraqis. ¶ The State Department and security officials attempted to portray Blackwater’s armed guards as highly trained professionals who open fire in the streets of Baghdad only when the lives of the diplomats they are hired to protect are threatened.” That sure smacks of collusion to me.
The State Department’s top Iraq coordinator, David M. Satterfield, praised Blackwater and said its guards had performed “exceedingly well.” He denied that the department had improperly allowed contractors to evade prosecution for wrongdoing.
“We do believe that the overall mission of security contractors in Iraq is performed . . . with professionalism, with courage,” Satterfield said.
The mutual defense, in back-to-back appearances before the House Oversight Committee, seemed to frustrate congressional Democrats. At one point, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois accused the State Department’s top security official of parroting Blackwater’s “talking points.”
In Blackwater head defends firm from congressional critics, Warren Strobel reports on the hearing for the McClatchy Newspapers. Strobel ends his piece with:
Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., told Prince that even if companies such as Blackwater are living up to their contract’s terms, they could harm the overall U.S. effort.
Tierney quoted Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq and a counter-insurgency expert: “Counterinsurgents that use excessive force to limit short-term risk alienate the local populace.”
“It does appear from some of the evidence here that Blackwater and other companies sometimes, at least, conduct their missions in ways that lead exactly in the opposite direction that General Petraeus wants to go. That doesn’t mean you’re not fulfilling your contractual obligations,” Tierney said.
Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitors in More questions on Blackwater, combines reporting on the hearings with outside analysis. “‘The use of contractors appears to be hampering efforts to actually win the counterinsurgency campaign [in Iraq] on multiple levels,’ writes Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a just-published report on the subject… ¶ The very presence of private firms performing functions once carried out by the US military has created a ‘dependency syndrome,’ he writes. ¶ Outsourcing of logistical jobs as well as protective services ‘has become the ultimate enabler, allowing operations to happen that otherwise might be politically impossible,’ according to Singer… ¶ Some Democratic lawmakers questioned whether an investigation led by the State Department could be impartial, given the department’s close relationship with Blackwater. ¶ ‘Yes, we believe that is possible,’ said Mr. Satterfield in response. He added that around the world the State Department dismisses security contractors it finds deficient ‘every day.'” Yeah right. Of the Prince testimony, Grier reports: “US government outsourcing of bodyguard and protective functions to firms such as his is an effective marshaling of resources, said Prince. ‘By doing so, more American soldiers are available to fight the enemy,’ he said… ‘To the extent that there is any loss of innocent life ever [in Iraq], let me express that is tragic,’ he said.” One wonders if Prince, Bush, and the other warmongers believe there is ‘innocent life’ in Iraq?
Surprisingly, the normally impartial The Hill gives a one-sided account of Tuesday’s hearing in Partisan battle rages over Blackwater. The article begins by quoting the Republicans’ goto doofus, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who said he was “grateful” for Blackwater’s big, sweaty guys protecting him in Iraq. And apparently without choking on the irony in what he was saying, Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) noted “there has been no congressman killed while in Iraq”.
Dana Milbank weighs in with a piece for his column in the Washington Post, ‘The Man From Blackwater, Shooting From the Lip‘.
“Like the company he founded, defense contractor Erik Prince doesn’t seem to answer to anybody. His security business, Blackwater, has been involved in at least 195 shootings in Iraq — but it has operated outside U.S. and Iraqi laws. Similarly, when Prince made a rare public appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee yesterday, he acted as if the lawmakers were wasting his time.
How much does Blackwater, recipient of $1 billion in federal contracts, make in profits? “We’re a private company, and there’s a key word there — private,” Prince answered…
The lack of prosecution for a drunken Blackwater worker who shot and killed a security guard to an Iraqi vice president? “We can’t flog him,” Prince said…
As the hearing stretched through the lunch hour, the witness grew cockier. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) said no more than “Thank you for being with us” before Prince shot back: “Glad I could come here and correct some facts.”
Prince had evidently made enough corrections, for a member of his entourage caught the chairman’s eye and made a “timeout” signal. The hearing thus adjourned, the Blackwater chief picked up the “MR. PRINCE” nameplate and, with a sly look, pocketed the souvenir.
Erik Prince is pictured here with his attorney, Stephen Ryan.
Finally, blogging for The Nation, John Nichols writes of ‘Blackwater’s Enablers at the State Department‘. “‘It’s hard to read these e-mails and not come to the conclusion that the State Department is acting as Blackwater’s enabler,’ Waxman told a hearing that saw Blackwater founder Erik Prince claim with a straight face that his company ‘acted appropriately at all times’… Blackwater, which has collected more than $1 billion in U.S. government contracts since 2001 to do security work once assigned to Marines, may be indefensible operation… ¶ Every indication is that Prince is a very bad man… But this investigation will not be done until Condoleezza Rice and her top aides have been placed under oath and required to testify about the high crimes and misdemeanors that enabled Blackwater and its employees to kill without consequences.” Absolutely. Rice’s testimony is a must.
Once again according to AFP, Iraq PM says ‘unfit’ Blackwater must go.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Wednesday that Blackwater should leave the country because of the mountain of evidence against the under-fire US security firm…
‘I believe the abundance of evidence against it makes it unfit to stay in Iraq,’ Maliki told a televised press conference in Baghdad.”
Someone, anyone, in Congress needs to stand up and state the obvious. As long as the Bush administration permits Blackwater to remain in Iraq, the legitimacy of Iraq’s government and its sovereignty is completely at doubt.