independent journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.
Erik Prince, the founder and chairman of Blackwater USA, testified the before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform amid a public firestorm over the role of private military firms operating in Iraq and a string of probes into Blackwater’s conduct. We play excerpts of the hearing and speak with Jeremy Scahill, author of "Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Mr. Prince goes to Washington. That’s right, Erik Prince, founder and chair of Blackwater USA, testified before Congress Tuesday in his first extended public appearance. Prince was called before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform amidst a public firestorm over the role of private military firms operating in Iraq and a string of probes into Blackwater’s conduct.
Blackwater has come under heavy scrutiny since an attack last month in Baghdad in which between 11 and 28 Iraqis were killed. Although the incident triggered Tuesday’s hearing, the committee agreed not to discuss specifics of the attack, following a Justice Department request that it wait until an FBI investigation is concluded.
California Democrat Henry Waxman chaired the committee. His staff produced a scathing report Monday detailing Blackwater’s activities in Iraq. In his opening comments, Waxman summarized some of the report’s findings.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: New documents indicate that there have been a total of 195 shooting incidents involving Blackwater forces since 2005. Blackwater’s contract says the company is hired to provide defensive services. But in most of these incidents, it was Blackwater forces who fired first. We have also learned that 122 Blackwater employees, one-seventh of the company’s current workforce in Iraq, have been terminated for improper conduct.
We have the best troops in the world. The men and women in our armed forces are extraordinarily able and dedicated. Their pay does not reflect their value, but they don’t complain. So I have a high bar when I ask whether Blackwater and other private military contractors can meet the performance standards of our soldiers.
In recent days, military leaders have said that Blackwater’s missteps in Iraq are going to hurt us badly. One senior U.S. military official said Blackwater’s actions are creating resentment among Iraqis that "may be worse than Abu Ghraib." If these observations are true, they mean that our reliance on a private military contractor is backfiring.
AMY GOODMAN: Henry Waxman, chair of the House Oversight Committee. During Tuesday’s hearing, Blackwater chief executive, Erik Prince, was questioned repeatedly about the killing of civilians in Iraq. This is Illinois Democrat, Danny Davis.
REP. DANNY DAVIS: You do admit that Blackwater personnel have shot and killed innocent civilians, don’t you?
ERIK PRINCE: No, sir. I disagree with that. I think there has been times when guys are using defensive force to protect themselves, to protect the packages, trying to get away from danger. There could be ricochets. There are traffic accidents. Yes, this is war.
You know, since 2005, we’ve conducted in excess of 16,000 missions in Iraq and 195 incidents with weapons discharge. In that time, did a ricochet hurt or kill an innocent person? That’s entirely possible. Again, we do not have the luxury of staying behind to do that terrorist crime scene investigation to figure out what happened.
AMY GOODMAN: House committee Republicans defended Blackwater during the hearing, arguing private security firms are a necessary part of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is North Carolina Republican Patrick McHenry.
REP. PATRICK McHENRY: Mr. Prince, can you describe to the committee the nature of your contract, who your client is in Iraq?
ERIK PRINCE: In Iraq, we work for the Department of State.
REP. PATRICK McHENRY: And what is the service you provide for the Department of State?
ERIK PRINCE: We operate under the Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract, and we are charged with protecting diplomats, reconstruction officials, and visiting "codels," members of Congress and their staffs.
REP. PATRICK McHENRY: And in the last — since — in this calendar year, how many missions have you had in Iraq?
ERIK PRINCE: 1,873.
REP. PATRICK McHENRY: How many incidents occurred during those 1,873 movements?
ERIK PRINCE: Only 56 incidents.
REP. PATRICK McHENRY: Alright. And a movement is a — for instance, you take — a member of Congress lands at the airstrip; they’re transported to the embassy. That’s one movement, is that?
ERIK PRINCE: Yes, sir.
REP. PATRICK McHENRY: Alright. And 56 incidents out of 1,873 moments in a war zone, is that correct?
ERIK PRINCE: Resulted in the discharge of one of our guys’ weapons.
REP. PATRICK McHENRY: Which — those 56 incidents, does that mean that they shot at someone? Describe what an incident is.
ERIK PRINCE: Yes. We don’t even record all the times that our guys receive fire. The vehicles get shot at on a daily basis, multiple times a day. So that’s not something we even record. In this case, an incident is a defensive measure. You’re responding to an IED attack, followed by small arms fire. Most of the attacks we get in Iraq are complex, meaning it’s not just one bad thing, it’s a host of bad things: a car bomb followed by a small arms attack, RPGs followed by sniper fire. An incident occurs typically when our men fear for their life, they’re not able to extract themselves from the situation. They have to use sufficient defensive fire to get off the axe, to get off that place where the bad guys have tried to kill Americans that day.
AMY GOODMAN: Erik Prince, Blackwater founder and chair, questioned by North Carolina Republican Patrick McHenry. The issue of the privatization of war was raised by several committee Democrats. This is California Congressmember Diane Watson.
REP. DIANE WATSON: I am really concerned when it comes to privatizing the various struggles that we are having in a war zone. And I’m looking at a book here that says Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. That is really disturbing to me.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill is the author of that book, the New York Times bestseller, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He attended yesterday’s hearing, joins us from Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Jeremy.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Thanks, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you set the scene for us?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Erik Prince is a man who has never held a press conference. He’s only known to have given one television interview, and that was on Fox News shortly after 9/11. He’s a guy whose company has gone after people, reporters, journalists, who have taken his photo. This is a man who’s incredibly secretive and has tried to avoid having his face in the public spotlight. In fact, the last time he was invited to testify in front of the Congress, it was in February, and instead of showing up himself, he dispatched his lawyer Andrew Howell. So this was a major day, where you see the mercenary king of the United States appearing not just before Congress, but before the cameras of the world. He certainly was uneasy having to do that, but he probably faced a choice himself, and that was to either show up on his own volition or to face a subpoena, where he would have been required to show up.
When Erik Prince stepped into the room, he was mobbed by photographers, and he came in, not with an army of armed mercenaries, but with an army of lawyers and advisers. And one of the people with him was Barbara Comstock, who’s a well-known Republican operative and a crisis management consultant. Blackwater had the first and second rows basically empty behind Mr. Prince, with the exception of his team of advisers and his consiglieri, and an unidentified man on several occasions during the course of the hearing himself interrupted the hearings and asked Henry Waxman to be able to consult with Prince. And then, what would result from that is that Erik Prince would turn around, and his advisers and lawyers would pile around him like a sports team plotting out their next play. It was very dramatic.
And I think that the issue here is that the Democrats really, I feel, dropped the ball on many of the most important issues surrounding Blackwater. Yes, there were some important questions raised. But for the most part, they steered away from some of the most devastating and violent incidents involving the company. The ambush at Fallujah in March of 2004, for instance, wasn’t addressed at all, except in passing. And there were a number of family members of the four Blackwater operatives who were killed in that incident. That’s a crucial one for the Congress to investigate, not only because of the allegations that Blackwater sent those four men into Fallujah in unarmored vehicles, short two men, and without heavy weapons, but because of the enormous price that Iraqi civilians paid for the deaths of those four corporate employees, the Bush administration ordering the leveling of Fallujah and, of course, the inflammation of the Iraqi resistance. There are a number of other incidents that never came up in the hearing.
I think that what needs to happen is that Erik Prince needs to become a more frequent visitor to Capitol Hill than his industry lobbyists have been over the past several years, and his visits should always begin with his right hand raised and cameras in front of him.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, the Fallujah attack that killed the four Blackwater employees, we have rarely heard in the corporate media that, in fact, Blackwater is being sued by the families of those Blackwater employees.
JEREMY SCAHILL: That’s right. And Henry Waxman’s committee last week released a devastating study that essentially said that Blackwater was responsible for what happened that day, by sending the men out ill-prepared into what was arguably the most dangerous city in the world.
And the lawsuit of those four families basically boils down to this: They say that they tried, after that incident, to get information from Blackwater as to how their loved ones ended up in that city undermanned, under-armed and in these softskin vehicles, as is the term in the industry. And they say that only after months of stonewalling by Blackwater and being told that if they wanted to see the company’s report on the incident that they would have to sue, that they did just that. And so, in January of 2005, they filed this lawsuit against Blackwater, charging that the company was responsible for the deaths.
I, myself, went to a mercenary conference last summer and ran into Erik Prince, and I tried to question him on some of the decisions that were made surrounding that mission. I tried to ask him why those men were there, not in armored vehicles, in a city where the U.S. military wouldn’t even go in, not to mention without armored vehicles, and why he has refused to answer the questions of those families. He wouldn’t answer my questions at the American Enterprise Institute. And I found it quite disturbing that not a single member of Congress, when they had Erik Prince under oath, asked him about that, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, we’re going to come back to this discussion. I want to ask you about the first government report on the September 16th attack, now, it turns out, written by a Blackwater contractor. Jeremy Scahill is our guest, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jeremy Scahill, independent journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent, Nation writer, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He appeared at this unprecedented congressional hearing yesterday, first time Erik Prince himself, founder and chief executive officer of Blackwater USA, has appeared before Congress.
Jeremy, can you talk about the revelation that the State Department’s initial report on the September 16th attack in Baghdad that led to this hearing was written up by a Blackwater contractor named Darren Hanner?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, first of all, as you said in the opening, Representative Waxman began this hearing by saying that the FBI had launched a criminal investigation of the September 16th Nisoor Square shootings, and that Waxman said that the Congress does have an independent right to information about this and to take testimony about it, but that he and the ranking member, Representative Davis, had agreed that they wouldn’t take any testimony on it. And so, Waxman issued a sort of guideline that it wouldn’t be discussed at all. And I think that’s troubling in and of itself.
What’s interesting is that in Erik Prince’s prepared testimony, before Waxman sort of issued this order that it wouldn’t be discussed, Erik Prince was saying that the world should hold off judgment on what happened on September 16th in Baghdad until the State Department completed its review. And he said that that would give us a more complete picture of what happened. Well, what does it say now that Darren Hanner, allegedly a Blackwater contractor, wrote the initial State Department report on this issue? It says that Blackwater essentially is involved with writing what is supposed to be the independent investigation of the State Department’s review of Blackwater’s own action.
This is part of a pattern of the State Department covering up for the misconduct of Blackwater in Iraq. There’s also allegations that the inspector general of the State Department intervened in a federal investigation of alleged arms smuggling charges against Blackwater and impeded that investigation. So this isn’t surprising, but it’s incredibly disturbing and raises very serious questions about a potential whitewashing of what Iraqis say was an outright cold-blooded massacre of several Iraqi civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, can you explain Erik Prince’s ties to the Republican Party?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, it’s interesting, because the Republicans on the committee, not just during this hearing, but also in the February hearing when Blackwater’s lawyer testified, tried to sort of say that this was a smear campaign against Blackwater, because some of the company’s executives are close to the Republican Party. And they’ve attempted to say that Blackwater is a nonpartisan operation. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, comes from a powerhouse conservative Republican family in Michigan. His father was a major bankroller, not only of the Republican Revolution of 1994, but also a major funder of several of the key groups that make up the core of the radical religious right. His dad gave the seed money to Gary Bauer to start the Family Research Council. Erik Prince was an early intern in the first team of interns that Gary Bauer took on. Gary Bauer, also a signer of the Project for a New American Century, the neoconservative agenda adopted by the White House. Also, they were very close to James Dobson and his Focus on the Family prayer warrior network.
Erik Prince himself has given several hundred thousand dollars to Republican campaign causes, including nearly $200,000 to the Republican National Committee. He also has continued his family tradition of bankrolling radical right-wing religious groups. Erik Prince also has a long history of being involved with the Republican Party. He was an early intern at George H.W. Bush’s White House. And that’s just talking about Erik Prince.
You can go down the line of other Blackwater executives that are not only connected to the Republican Party and the conservative establishment in this country, but also to the current Bush administration, people like J. Cofer Black, the former head of counterterrorism at the CIA; Joseph Schmitz, the former inspector general at the Pentagon. The original lawyer for the company dealing with that Fallujah lawsuit we talked about was none other than Fred Fielding, who’s now Bush’s White House counsel. More recently, their lawyer has been Ken Starr.
In fact, Erik Prince has actually given money to Green Party candidates in an attempt to defeat Democratic candidates in elections against Republicans. So, very clearly, Erik Prince is an ideological foot soldier, not only for the administration, but for the Republican Party in general.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to this issue of Erik Prince’s ties to the Republican Party, which came up only once in Tuesday’s hearing during questioning by California Republican Darrell Issa.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: Let’s just go to one area that I think hasn’t been discussed, and others might not discuss it. Is your sister’s name Betsy DeVos?
ERIK PRINCE: DeVos.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: Yes. Is that your sister?
ERIK PRINCE: Yes, it is.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: And is she — was she a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman?
ERIK PRINCE: Yes, she was.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: And was she a Pioneer for Bush?
ERIK PRINCE: I don’t know. Could be.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: Was she a large contributor to President Bush?
ERIK PRINCE: They probably were.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: And raised a lot of money for President Bush?
ERIK PRINCE: Could easily be.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: Went to the Republican conventions in 2000 and 2004?
ERIK PRINCE: I would imagine they did, yes.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: Isn’t it true that your family, at least that part of the family, are very well-known Republicans?
ERIK PRINCE: Yes.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: Wouldn’t it be fair to say that your company is easily identified as a Republican-leaning company and, in fact, the Amway Company somewhat so because of family members there? You don’t have to speculate overly, but isn’t that generally something you understand?
ERIK PRINCE: Blackwater is not a partisan company. We haven’t done any — you know, we execute the mission given us, whether it’s training Navy sailors or protecting State Department personnel. Yes, I have given individual political contributions. I’ve done that since college, and I did it when I was an active-duty member of the Armed Services, and I’ll probably continue doing that forward. I don’t give that — I didn’t give up that right when I became a defense contractor.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: Right. OK, Mr. Chairman —
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Gentleman’s time is expired.
REP. DARRELL ISSA: Just to finish the thought, like we did on the other side of the aisle, I think you’re exactly right, that in fact, well, being identified as partisan Republican, in fact, your company appears to have done what all companies do, which is, in fact, operate to do the job they’re doing in a nonpartisan way. And I would hope that this committee and the public takes note that labeling some company as Republican-oriented because of family members is inappropriate, and I would hope that we not do it again. And I yield back.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Well, the only one who’s done it is you.
AMY GOODMAN: Republican Congressmember Darrell Issa of California questioning the founder of Blackwater USA, Erik Prince. Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, comment.
JEREMY SCAHILL: I’m sure Erik Prince and his advisers had an incredible moment of "What the h—- is going on here?" You know, this was actually one of the funniest moments of this hearing, because I think Erik Prince was stunned. Darrell Issa, during the February hearing, was the pitbull for the Republicans when they were questioning the four family members of the men killed at Fallujah, and he’s the one that introduced what I think is an incredible part of this story.
Betsy DeVos, who is Erik Prince’s sister, is married to Dick DeVos, the heir to the Amway Corporation fortune, the owners of the Orlando Magic basketball team and the single greatest bankrollers of the Republican Revolution. And let’s remember here, Blackwater was a company that basically didn’t exist a decade ago. Its federal revenue, federal contract revenue, in 2001 was about $240,000. Now it’s about $1 billion. So, clearly, this company owes its meteoric rise to the policies of the Bush administration. And the fact is that Blackwater’s work in Iraq began with a $27 million no-bid contract to provide the elite body guards for Paul Bremer. It’s very relevant, Mr. Prince’s political connections and his campaign contributions and certainly that of his broader family, which is a powerhouse family in Republican politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, can you talk about some other of the attacks that have occurred under Blackwater’s watch? Particularly, briefly tell us about last December, the Christmas shooting of the vice president’s bodyguard.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. This is an issue that has sort of been off the pages of the major newspapers in this country since it happened. Until very recently, this hasn’t been reported on. But the story basically boils down to this. On December 24th, inside of the heavily fortified Green Zone in the Little Venice area of the Green Zone — the Iraqis call it the Green Zoo — an off-duty Blackwater contractor was at a Christmas Eve party and had allegedly had a lot to drink. He stumbled out of that party and ran into a bodyguard for the Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi and got into some kind of an altercation with him. And the allegation is that he fired somewhere in the ballpark of seven shots at him, allegedly hitting him about three times, and then he fled that scene and was eventually pursued by armed Iraqi police inside of the Green Zone.
And what happened after this incident is that within 36 hours, this individual was flown out of Iraq to avoid prosecution under the Iraqi legal system. The Iraqi Vice President Abdul-Mahdi was incredibly outraged and labeled this killing a murder. And he, himself, had actually agreed to keep it under wraps, in fear that it would spark massive outrage among the Iraqi population, who wouldn’t understand how someone who killed a bodyguard for the vice president could then be whisked out of Iraq and face no charges — not only not in Iraq, but not in the United States, as well. I mean, imagine if an Iraqi diplomatic security officer shot and killed a bodyguard for Vice President Dick Cheney and then the Iraqis snuck him out of the country. I mean, there wouldn’t be an Iraq tomorrow if that happened.
And so, this is a situation that was boiling for a number of months, and what happened after it was incredible, because what appears to have happened is that the State Department essentially was attempting to direct Blackwater to pay hush money to the family of this individual.
And I just want to read from the report here that Representative Waxman’s office released earlier this week. This is, a State Department charge d’affaires wrote the following to the regional security officer the very next day, on December 25th. He said, "If we are to avoid this whole thing becoming even worse, I think a prompt pledge and an apology, even if they want to claim it was accidental, would be the best way to assure the Iraqis don’t take steps, such as telling Blackwater that they are no longer able to work in Iraq."
And according to the documents obtained by Waxman’s committee, the charge d’affaires initially proposed a $250,000 payment, then dropped it down to $100,000. And the diplomatic security service said that these figures were too high, and one DSS official called the charge d’affaires’s proposals "crazy sums" and stated that such a figure could cause Iraqis to "try to get killed, so as to set up their family financially." Eventually, Blackwater and the State Department supposedly agreed on a $15,000 payment, although Erik Prince said it was actually $20,000. And that payment was given to that individual’s family, we understand, through the U.S. State Department itself.
So, clearly, this man has not been charged with any crime. He is walking around, and we understand from reports today that he is not in custody in the United States. And so, this is part of a pattern of the State Department asking Blackwater to pay off the families of victims of Blackwater activities.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s return to Tuesday’s hearing, when New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney grilled Erik Prince about that December attack.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Have any charges been brought against him in the Iraqi justice system?
ERIK PRINCE: I don’t believe in the Iraqi justice system. I do believe —- I know we’ve referred it over to the -—
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Justice Department. They told us they’re still looking at it nine months later. Have any charges been brought against him in the U.S. military justice system?
ERIK PRINCE: I don’t know.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Have any charges been brought against him in the U.S. civilian justice system?
ERIK PRINCE: Well, that would be handled by the Justice Department, ma’am. That’s for them to answer, not me.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Other than firing him, has there been any sanction against him by any government authority? You mentioned you fined people for bad behavior. Was he fined for killing the Iraqi guard?
ERIK PRINCE: Yes, he was.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: How much was he fined?
ERIK PRINCE: Multiple thousands of dollars. I don’t know the exact number. I’ll have to get you that answer.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: OK.
ERIK PRINCE: Look, I’m not going to make any apologies for what he did.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: OK, but —
ERIK PRINCE: He clearly violated our policies.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Alright. We — every American believes he violated policies. If he lived in America, he would have been arrested, and he would be facing criminal charges. If he was a member of our military, he would be under a court-martial. But it appears to me that Blackwater has special rules. That’s one of the reasons of this hearing.
Now, within 36 hours of the shooting, he was flown out of Iraq. And did Blackwater arrange for this contractor leave Iraq less than two hours after the shooting?
ERIK PRINCE: I do not believe we arranged for him to leave after two hours after the shooting. He was arrested.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: OK, what about two days? It was two after the shooting. Did Blackwater arrange for him to leave the country?
ERIK PRINCE: That could easily be.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: OK.
ERIK PRINCE: IZ police arrested him. There was evidence gathered. There was information turned over to the Justice Department office in Baghdad. We fired him. He certainly didn’t have a job with us.
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Well, in America, if you committed a crime, you don’t pack them up and ship them out of the country in two days. If you’re really concerned about accountability, which you testified in your testimony, you would have gone in and done a thorough investigation. And because this shooting took place within the Green Zone, this was a controllable situation. You could have gone in and done forensic and all the things that they do, but the response was to pack him up and have him leave the country within two days. And I’d like to ask you, how do you justify sending him away from Iraq, when any investigation would have only just begun?
ERIK PRINCE: Again, he was fired. The Justice Department was investigating in Baghdad. There is a Justice Department office there. He didn’t have a job with us anymore. We, as a private company, cannot detain him. We can fire, we can fine, but we can’t do anything else. The State Department —
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: What evidence you have that the Justice Department was investigating him at that time?
ERIK PRINCE: From talking to my program management people in the country. They said it’s in the hands of the IZ police, which is Air Force, arrested him. They took him in for questioning. It was handled by the Justice Department. He was fired by us. The State Department ordered —
REP. CAROLYN MALONEY: Well, it’s been ten months, and the Justice Department has not done anything to him. Again, I repeat, if he was a U.S. citizen or in America, he would have been arrested immediately, he would have faced criminal charges. We know about the chain of command in the military. They are court-martialed immediately. But if you work for Blackwater, you get packed up and you leave within two days and you face a $1,000 fine. So I am concerned about accountability and the fairness of this. — I am concerned about accountability and really the unfairness of this. And I am concerned about how Blackwater may — if I could just say, Mr. Chairman, that your actions may be undermining our mission in Iraq and really hurting the relationship and trust between the Iraqi people and the American military.
AMY GOODMAN: New York Congressmember Carolyn Maloney questioning the founder of Blackwater USA, Erik Prince. Jeremy Scahill, your response?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, Blackwater’s founder, Erik Prince, said on numerous occasions during the hearing that contractors who violate Blackwater policy in Iraq face a choice — window or aisle — and said that they fire the contractors and take them out of the country. And, in fact, Blackwater says that it has fired 122 contractors. That’s about a seventh of its current Iraq deployment has been fired for various violations. Where is the Justice Department investigation? I mean, if this is one example of the kind of individual who’s fired and then taken out of the country, and he hasn’t been charged with a crime, despite what seems to be clear evidence that there was a killing of an Iraqi bodyguard to the vice president, what about these other 122 firings that Erik Prince says have occurred in Iraq from Blackwater?
AMY GOODMAN: Who was the man who killed the bodyguard? What was his name?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, we don’t know. His name has not been released publicly. I understand today that there’s a report in the Seattle newspapers that he’s from that area of the country. But the government has been holding this very close to the chest.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, on the issue of profits, Erik Prince refused to respond when asked how much money Blackwater had made in Iraq. He was questioned by Connecticut Democrat Christopher Murphy.
REP. CHRISTOPHER MURPHY: As the CEO of the company, you can tell us what your profit has been in the past several years as a company?
ERIK PRINCE: I can give approximate numbers, but we’re a private company. And I’m sure it’s the Congress’s main interest in maintaining healthy competition amongst government vendors. So we’re a private company, and there’s a key word there: "private."
REP. CHRISTOPHER MURPHY: And so, you will not disclose to us what the profit, what the annual profit over the last —
ERIK PRINCE: No, that’s not what I just said. We gave you an example of the profitability of a WPPS contract looks like, but we’re not going to — I’m not going to go into our full financials.
REP. CHRISTOPHER MURPHY: And I guess, you know, I’m a new member of Congress, but as a representative of my constituents that pay 90 percent of your salary, pay 90 percent of the salaries of your employees, I think it’s a little difficult for us to fathom how that information isn’t relevant to this committee or this Congress. So let me ask again, after your consultation with your colleague. It’s your position that you don’t believe that it’s in the best interest of your company or this committee to have discussions with the United States Congress about the profit that you make off of U.S. government contracts.
ERIK PRINCE: We can have that discussion, but I’m not fully prepared here, sitting today, to answer each and every one of your questions down to that level of detail.
REP. CHRISTOPHER MURPHY: I’m not asking for a level of detail. I’m asking for an approximation of your annual profit, based on the fact that you make 90 percent of your money from U.S. taxpayers.
ERIK PRINCE: Again, we’ll come back to you. If you have written questions, we’ll give you written answers after the hearing is done.
REP. CHRISTOPHER MURPHY: Because you testified today that you are not sure of that number, you don’t know that number.
ERIK PRINCE: I’m not sure of that number. How can I calculate in depreciation on assets, when our helicopter parked around near the embassy in Baghdad get hit by rockets all the time, that they get fragged, that three of them have been shot down? There is a whole host of variability to our profitability, depending on when an asset is expended or destroyed.
REP. CHRISTOPHER MURPHY: You know, Mr. Prince, I’m not a businessman, but I find it pretty hard to believe that the CEO of a major company in this country, whether it be privately financed or publicly financed, can’t give an approximation of your annual profit on a year-to-year basis.
ERIK PRINCE: I think when the committee meets with any of my finance folks, they will tell you I’m not a financially driven guy.
AMY GOODMAN: The founder of Blackwater, Erik Prince, being questioned by Connecticut freshman Congressmember Christopher Murphy. Jeremy Scahill, do you have any idea how much Blackwater makes?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, when Erik Prince did give an estimate of the profitability of one of his contracts, he said it was about 10 percent. And so, if you look at Blackwater having about $1 billion just in State Department contracts for its Iraq work alone, it could be in the ballpark of $100 million in profit on that contract. It’s interesting, when they also — one congressmember pointed out that General David Petraeus, who is overseeing the surge in Iraq, makes about $180,000 a year. And then they asked Erik Prince, whose entire company is funded 90 percent through federal contracts, how much money he makes. He at first tried to say he doesn’t know what his salary is, and then, when pressed on it, he said that it was over $1 million. I think one of the — a statement that Prince made there is very telling and, I think, partially true. He said, "I’m not a financially driven man." Well, I’m sure he is a financially driven man, but he’s also an ideological foot soldier, not just for the occupation of Iraq, but for the broader privatization agenda, and with this agenda, Blackwater’s guns are going to be kept loaded and, it seems, all too often fired at will.
AMY GOODMAN: Erik Prince also criticized the use of the term "mercenaries" when referring to Blackwater employees during the questioning by Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland.
REP. LYNN WESTMORELAND: ... employees, it was doing a bad job and not meeting your criteria then, those are some of the people that you got rid of, right?
ERIK PRINCE: If they don’t hold to the standard, they have one decision to make: window or aisle?
REP. LYNN WESTMORELAND: And, Mr. Prince, what kinds of professional backgrounds do most of your security personnel have?
ERIK PRINCE: All of our personnel working on the WPPS-type contract come from the U.S. military or law enforcement community. They have a number of years of experience doing that kind of work, ranging from five, eight years, up to 20 or 30 years of experience. They’re discharged honorably. Most of them are decorated. They’ve gotten out of the military to choose — to take another career path, and so we give them the ability to use those skills back again working for the U.S. government.
And let me just say, we are not a partisan organization. That’s not on the interview form when you come to work for Blackwater, what party you affiliate with at all. We affiliate with America.
REP. LYNN WESTMORELAND: I understand that.
ERIK PRINCE: And the idea that people call us "mercenaries," we have Americans working for America.
AMY GOODMAN: That is Erik Prince testifying before the House Oversight Committee headed by Henry Waxman. Jeremy Scahill, can you summarize what happened yesterday and what you think needs to be answered now?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I think that the Congress needs to investigate every single incident of Blackwater opening fire in Iraq, because ultimately we have to remember, at the end of the day, this is a demand-based industry. Blackwater would not exist if there was not an occupation of Iraq doing what it does over there. It wouldn’t exist if the Congress discontinued the funding of these mercenary forces. And so, while some in the Congress, I think, want to portray Blackwater as a rogue company, it’s not. It’s part of a system, where the major goal of Blackwater in Iraq is to keep the principal alive, protect the noun at any cost. And so often that seems to come at a very high price to Iraqis. And so, as the Congress now embarks on a Wartime Contracting Commission headed by Jim Webb and Claire McCaskill, who are freshman senators — and I think it’s telling that it took four years of occupation and two freshman senators to start this — what we really need to examine in this country is this system that intimately links corporate profits to an escalation of war and violent conflict, because these companies are making a killing, and it’s the Iraqi people who are paying the price for it. And unfortunately, that has not been on the congressional table, and it should be.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, thanks very much for being with us, independent journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Thanks, Amy.