Erik Prince, the secretive 38-year-old owner of the leading US mercenary firm Blackwater, has seldom appeared in public. But on Tuesday he found himself in front of a Congressional committee, TV cameras trained on his boyish face. The official focus of the hearing, convened by Henry Waxman's committee on oversight and government reform, was two questions that should have been asked long ago: whether the government's heavy reliance on private security is serving US interests in Iraq, and whether the specific conduct of Blackwater has advanced or impeded US efforts.
What put Prince in the hot seat were the infamous Nisour Square shootings in Baghdad on September 16, in which as many as 28 Iraqi civilians may have been killed. Waxman said the justice department had asked him not to take testimony on the incident because it was the subject of an FBI investigation. In Prince's prepared testimony, he said that people should wait for the results of the investigation - originally handled by the state department - "for a complete understanding of that event".
But the investigative process so far has hardly been impartial. Just hours before Prince's testimony, CNN reported that the state department's initial report on the shooting was drafted by a Blackwater contractor, Darren Hanner. The next day came the news that the FBI team assigned to look into the incident in Baghdad had a contract with Blackwater itself to provide security for their investigation.
At the hearing Prince boldly declared that in Iraq his men have acted "appropriately at all times" and appeared to deny that the company had ever killed innocent civilians, only acknowledging that some may have died as a result of "ricochets" and "traffic accidents". This assertion is simply unbelievable. According to a report prepared by Waxman's staff, since 2005 Blackwater operatives in Iraq have opened fire on at least 195 occasions. In more than 80% of these instances, the Blackwater agents fired first.
Not surprisingly, Prince said he supported the continuation of Order 17 in Iraq, the Bremer-era decree giving organisations such as Blackwater immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Prince said Blackwater operatives who "don't hold to the standard, they have one decision to make: window or aisle" on their flight home. In all, Blackwater has sacked more than 120 of its operatives in Iraq. Given that being fired and sent home have been the only disciplinary consequences faced by Blackwater employees, it is worth asking: what did they do to earn this punishment?
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Waxman's committee scrutinised one incident: the killing of one of the Iraqi vice-president's bodyguards by an allegedly drunk Blackwater contractor last Christmas Eve. Prince confirmed that Blackwater had whisked him out of Iraq and fired him, and said that he had been fined and billed for his return ticket.
According to the committee report, after the killing the state department chargÃƒ© d'affaires recommended that Blackwater make a "sizable payment" to the bodyguard's family. The official suggested $250,000, but the department's diplomatic security service said this was too much and could cause Iraqis to "try to get killed". In the end, the state department and Blackwater are said to have agreed on a $15,000 payment.
A pattern is emerging from the Congressional investigation into Blackwater: the state department urging the company to pay what amounts to hush money to victims' families while facilitating the return of contractors involved in deadly incidents for which not a single one has faced prosecution.
Jeremy Scahill is the author of the New York Times bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He is currently a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute.
© 2007 The Guardian