"No individual protected by Blackwater has ever been killed or seriously injured." So says Erik Prince, the 38-year-old former Navy Seal whose security company finds itself at the center of a growing debate over the use of private contractors in Iraq. Blackwater USA Chairman Prince is scheduled on Tuesday to make his first-ever appearance before Congress, along with three other witnesses who will line up before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
A copy of Prince's prepared statement, obtained by TIME, shows he plans a robust defense of his embattled firm, which has become a target for Democrats and other critics of President Bush's unpopular war in Iraq. Prince will point out that 30 employees of Blackwater or its affiliates have lost their lives, with many more wounded or maimed. And, he will cite U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker, who has publicly defended Blackwater and argued that there is no practical alternative to the use of private security forces in Iraq.
Most important, from the standpoint of the company's many critics, Prince will declare that "Blackwater believes that more can and should be done to increase accountability, oversight and transparency," and that he looks forward to working with both Congress and the Administration to achieve that. He also points out, again citing U.S. government data, that Blackwater has conducted 1,873 security details in 2007, with only 56 incidents during which weapons were discharged less than 3%.
And Prince will forcefully defend the company's personnel who were involved in a September 16 incident in Baghdad that left some 11 Iraqis dead and ignited the latest controversy. "Based on everything we currently know," he says, pending the result of an official inquiry, "the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone."
Prince's arguments are unlikely to go down well with committee chairman Henry Waxman, who has emerged as the company's leading congressional critic. On Monday, Waxman's staff released a blistering assessment of the company and its performance, alleging that Blackwater employees had shot innocent Iraqis and had paid off one victim's family to appease State Department officials who had wanted to put the "unfortunate matter" behind them. The 15-page report said the firm's staff has been involved in at least 195 shooting incidents since 2005, firing the first shot more than 80% of the time. It added that, over the same time period, Blackwater has dismissed 122 employees, about one-seventh of its workforce in Iraq, claiming drug or alcohol use, violent conduct, misuse of weapons, and other untoward behavior.
Republicans have rejected this largely negative picture, and urged a postponement of Tuesday's hearing until official inquiries into the company's actions are complete. Representative Thomas Davis of Virginia, the top Republican on the House panel , defended the company, saying, "The Blackwater contract is hardly an open-ended license for out-of-control 'cowboys' to shoot up Baghdad."
In a related development, the FBI will send agents to Iraq to probe the Sept. 16 shootings. A company spokesman said in response: "Blackwater USA welcomes today's announcement regarding the Federal Bureau of Investigation's review of the September 16 incident in western Baghdad. Blackwater USA has always supported strong contractor accountability, and this latest step is a positive move in that direction. We look forward to cooperating fully with the Bureau's inquiry."