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Blackwater at center of debate over private military contractors Print

By BILL SIZEMORE, The Virginian-Pilot
February 8, 2007

WASHINGTON - Four women put a human face Wednesday on the murky world of private military contractors, a world that the new Democrat-controlled Congress is moving aggressively to investigate.
At the center of those efforts is Blackwater USA.

In often-emotional testimony, a House committee heard from family members of the four Blackwater contractors who were killed, their bodies mutilated and hung from a bridge in Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004. The images of that incident prompted a devastating U.S. assault on the city and spurred the Iraqi insurgency to new heights.

It also catapulted Blackwater to center stage in an evolving debate over the unprecedented privatization of warfighting that has become a hallmark of the Iraq conflict. On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee used Blackwater as a poster child for issues surrounding the private military industry.

The Moyock, N.C.-based company was thrown on the defensive by the accounts of the Fallujah victims' families, who accused Blackwater of sending their loved ones into harm's way unprepared and of treating the families with callous indifference.

"We continue to re live

that horror every day," Katy Helvenston-Wettengel told the committee. Helvenston-

Wettengel, who served as primary spokeswoman for the families, is the mother of Scott Helvenston, a former Navy SEAL who trained in Virginia Beach.

When the families sought information from Blackwater about what happened, she said, they were told it was confidential: "When we insisted on seeing the report concerning the incident, Blackwater told us that we would have to sue them to get it."

The families did. Their pending lawsuit in a North Carolina court accuses Blackwater of breaking its contractual obligations to the four men by sending them into hostile territory without armored vehicles, automatic weapons or a rear gunner - deficiencies that they attribute to Blackwater's desire to turn a profit.

"Blackwater gets paid by the number of warm bodies it can put on the ground in certain locations throughout the world," Helvenston-Wettengel said. "If some are killed, it replaces them at a moment's notice."

The families and several members of the House panel said Blackwater and other private contractors operate outside the military's chain of command and seem accountable to no one.

The families have "a thousand and one questions and no answers," said Donna Zovko, mother of former Army Ranger Jerry Zovko. "We just want the truth - the simple, plain truth."

The committee had invited Erik Prince, Blackwater's founder and chairman, to testify, but the former SEAL did not appear. In his stead the company sent its general counsel, Andrew Howell.

In his opening statement, Howell noted that Blackwater personnel most likely guard the committee members when they travel to Iraq. Later, he deflected many of the committee's questions, citing concerns about the litigation, operational security and classification.

Howell also suggested a political motivation for the testimony, calling it an "obvious attempt by the plaintiffs' lawyers to use this hearing for their own purposes."

Republican members of the committee called attention to a Dec. 13 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from the families' lead lawyer, Daniel J. Callahan, urging her to investigate Blackwater's "war profiteering." It referred to Blackwater as an "extremely Republican" company.

Republican committee staffers passed out memos detailing $68,500 in campaign contributions to Democrats from Callahan and other plaintiffs' lawyers in the case.

In one of several flare-ups of partisan sniping, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., said: "This is not the forum to prosecute private lawsuits, or the place to exploit a tragic event for political purposes."

The committee chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., responded that the hearing was about "four men who lost their lives. I don't know whether they were Democrats or Republicans."

On the Fallujah mission, Blackwater was at the bottom of a multi tiered chain of at least four companies.

Howell conceded that the Fallujah victims did not have the protection of armored vehicles or rear gunners, but he said the company did meet its contractual responsibilities.

An internal Blackwater e-mail exchange made public by the committee Wednesday, however, indicates there was concern about how well-equipped the men were.

An e-mail sent by the four men's supervisor, Tom Powell, to his superiors on March 30, 2004, one day before the ambush, conveyed an urgent need for armored vehicles, weapons, ammunition and communications equipment.

He was unsure who had the contractual responsibility for those items, Powell wrote, "but guys are in the field with borrowed stuff and in harm's way... which I'm very uncomfortable with."

Powell's superior, Mike Rush, wrote back that they were the responsibility of the next subcontractor up the chain, not Blackwater.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich,

D-Ohio, elicited some new details from Howell about a more recent Blackwater incident, first reported by The Virginian-Pilot last month.

Howell confirmed that an off-duty Blackwater contractor shot and killed an Iraqi security officer Dec. 24 in Baghdad and was immediately flown home by the company.

"Is he going to be extradited back to Iraq for murder?"

Kucinich asked. "And if not, why not?"

Howell did not answer directly but said the company is cooperating with an FBI investigation. 

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