Blackwater executive to testify before House panel

Blackwater USA Chairman Erik Prince will testify before a House committee Tuesday to discuss the role of private security firms in Iraq and Afghanistan and address allegations of misconduct against the company.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to Prince Thursday, asking him to speak about "whether the specific conduct of your company has advanced or impeded U.S. efforts." Committee spokeswoman Caren Auchman said Prince is confirmed to appear.

A report prepared by the committee's Democratic staff in advance of the hearing accused Blackwater of having delayed ongoing investigations into a March 2004 ambush in which four of the company's security personnel were killed.

"The committee's investigation into the Fallujah incident was delayed by Blackwater's recalcitrance and the company's questionable claims that it could not make available to the committee information about the Fallujah incident," the report stated.

According to the report, Blackwater initially refused to provide certain documents and information, claiming the materials were classified. The company then allegedly attempted to have this information classified retroactively by the Defense Department. Waxman also accused Blackwater of inappropriately claiming attorney-client privilege in refusing to provide requested information.

The committee issued a subpoena for the desired documents in early August but Blackwater did not comply until the committee threatened a vote to hold the company in contempt of Congress, the report stated.

While the report focused primarily on the Fallujah incident and Blackwater's alleged lack of cooperation with the committee, Blackwater has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks for an unrelated incident.

The Iraqi government announced Sept. 17 that it was revoking Blackwater's license to operate in the country after the company's security guards allegedly opened fire on Iraqi civilians. Accounts of the incident vary greatly; Blackwater maintains that its employees were protecting a convoy under attack while the Iraqi Interior Ministry reported that the security guards unjustifiably fired on civilians, killing 11.

The State Department and Iraqi government have since agreed to form a joint commission to investigate the incident and a report is expected within the next week. Blackwater is one of three private firms contracted to protect American diplomats in Iraq.

Tuesday's hearing will focus more generally on the government's "heavy reliance" on private security guards and whether the practice is serving U.S. interests in Iraq. Auchman said more witnesses may be announced in advance of the hearing but have not been confirmed at this time.

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