Blackwater's Troubles Deepening

| Fri Sep. 28, 2007 3:00 PM EDT

Blackwater USA's involvement in the shooting deaths of up to 11 Iraqi civilians on September 16 is metastasizing into the the largest scandal the company has yet faced regarding its conduct in Iraq. Numerous investigations are underway, both here and in Baghdad. There is growing speculation that, if the political pressure in Washington continues to build (a big if, given the legion of DC lobbyists the company employs to represent its interests), Blackwater's Iraq contract could be in jeopardy.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday at which Blackwater founder Erik Prince will make a rare public appearance. In the run-up to the hearing, Waxman's committee has been trying, without success, to obtain relevant documents from Blackwater. The company's reluctance to cooperate has led to a stand-off between Congress and the State Department, whose contracts with Blackwater for the physical protection of its diplomats are at issue in this month's shootings in Baghdad.

According to a letter sent Tuesday from Waxman to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, "Blackwater has informed the committee that a State Department official directed Blackwater not to provide documents relevant to the committee's investigation into the company's activities in Iraq without prior written approval of the State Department." The State Department issued a statement later the same day, claiming there had been a "misunderstanding" and that all available documentation requested by Waxman's committee "has been or is in the process of being provided."

Perhaps, but according to a congressional staffer I spoke with this morning, Waxman's committee has yet to receive any documentation from the State Department or Blackwater.

Meanwhile, new details have emerged about the September 16 shootings, suggesting that at least one Blackwater operator refused to cease fire when told to do so. He allegedly stopped firing only after another member of the security team leveled a weapon in his direction. A narrative of the incident as reported in this morning's New York Times:

The episode began around 11:50 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16. Diplomats with the United States Agency for International Development were meeting in a guarded compound about a mile northwest of Nisour Square, where the shooting would later take place.
A bomb exploded on the median of a road a few hundred yards away from the meeting, causing no injuries to the Americans, but prompting a fateful decision to evacuate. One American official who knew about the meeting cast doubt on the decision to move the diplomats out of a secure compound.
"It raises the first question of why didn't they just stay in place, since they are safe in the compound," the official said. "Usually the concept would be, if an I.E.D. detonates in the street, you would wait 15 to 30 minutes, until things calmed down," he said, using the abbreviation for improvised explosive device.
But instead of waiting, a Blackwater convoy began carrying the diplomats south, toward the Green Zone. Because their route would pass through Nisour Square, another convoy drove there to block traffic and ensure that the diplomats would be able to pass.
At least four sport utility vehicles stopped in lanes of traffic that were entering the square from the south and west. Some of the guards got out of their vehicles and took positions on the street, according to the official familiar with the report on the American investigation.
At 12:08 p.m., at least one guard began to fire in the direction of a car, killing its driver. A traffic policeman said he walked toward the car, but more shots were fired, killing a woman holding an infant sitting in the passenger seat.
There are three versions of why the shooting started. The Blackwater guards have told investigators that they believed that they were being fired on, the official familiar with the report said. A preliminary Iraqi investigation has concluded that there was no enemy fire, but some Iraqi witnesses have said that Iraqi commandos in nearby guard towers may have been shooting as well, possibly leading Blackwater guards to believe that militants were firing at them.
After the family was shot, a type of grenade or flare was fired into the car, setting it ablaze, according to some accounts. Other Iraqis were also killed as the shooting continued. Iraqi officials have given several death counts, ranging from 8 to 20, with perhaps several dozen wounded. American officials have said that no Americans were hurt.
At some point during the shooting, one or more Blackwater guards called for a cease-fire, according to the American official.
The word cease-fire "was supposedly called out several times," the official said. "They had an on-site difference of opinion," he said.
In the end, a Blackwater guard "got on another one about the situation and supposedly pointed a weapon," the official said.

In a separate article, the Times also reports that Blackwater operators may be a lot quicker to the trigger than their counterparts from other private security firms. The State Department revealed yesterday that Blackwater contractors have fired their weapons 56 times so far this year while escorting diplomats on 1,873 convoy runs. This may seem like a relatively low number. But compare it with that of Blackwater's biggest competitor, DynCorp International. In all of 2006, DynCorp operators fired their weapons just 10 times during about 1,500 convoy runs—this at a time before the much heralded 'surge' supposedly reduced the level of violence in Baghdad.