Panel criticizes State Department for failure to rein in Blackwater

The State Department has twice advised Blackwater USA to pay families of Iraqis killed by company employees, but has done little to curtail Blackwater's high rate of shooting incidents, according to a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee memorandum released Monday.

Incident reports created by Blackwater show that the company's security teams have been involved in 195 "escalation of force" incidents in Iraq where its employees fired shots since 2005, according to the memo. Though Blackwater's contract says the company's employees can only fire in self-defense, the incident reports show they fired the first shots 80 percent of the time.

Generally the contractors fired from moving vehicles and did not remain to see what damage resulted. But the reports show 162 incidents of property damage, mostly to cars and 16 Iraqi casualties, the memo says.

The memo details the company's steady increase in contract receipts since its inception, from $737,000 in 2001 to nearly $600 million in 2006. It also cites two incidents where the State Department advised Blackwater on how to resolve incidents where its employees killed Iraqis.

In December, after an apparently drunk Blackwater employee shot and killed a guard for the Iraq's vice president, the department helped transport the employee out of Iraq, the memo says, citing documents provided to the committee. The State Department's charge d'affaires later advised the firm to pay the guard's family $250,000 and apologize.

But after the department's Diplomatic Security Service said that amount could cause Iraqis "to try to get killed," State and Blackwater agreed on a $15,000 payment.

In another incident where Blackwater employees accidentally shot a civilian, State requested the company pay the victim's family $5,000 "to put this unfortunate matter behind us quickly." It has been a common practice for the U.S. military to pay money to families of civilians killed accidentally by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The House committee faults the department for not doing more to rein in Blackwater.

"There is no evidence in the documents that the committee has received that the State Department sought to restrain Blackwater's actions, raised concerns about the number of incidents involving Blackwater or the company's high rate of shooting first or detained Blackwater contractors for investigation," the memo says.

According to the memo, Blackwater has reported more shooting incidents than two other contractors that provide protective services to the State Department -- DynCorp International and Triple Canopy -- combined.

Asked about the committee memo at a briefing Monday, a State Department spokesman said it is not surprising that in defending U.S. employees from attack, Blackwater regularly left the scene quickly. And the spokesman said its numbers showed the company had fired weapons 56 times this year during 1,800 separate movements by its security teams. The spokesman was not asked about the payments to Iraqis by Blackwater.

The memo was prepared in connection with Tuesday's scheduled House committee hearing on private security contractors in Iraq. The hearing is set despite a request by six committee Republicans that it be postponed so that reports by State and a U.S.-Iraq commission created to the review a Sept. 16 shooting incident can be completed.

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