The head of private U.S. security firm Blackwater defended his company against accusations that its guards took advantage of the firm's immunity in Iraq and killed civilians without cause.


Erik Prince spent hours Tuesday defending his private security firm against accusations that the actions of its employees are harming the U.S. mission in Iraq. ((CBC))

"I believe we acted appropriately at all times," Erik Prince told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a lengthy session Tuesday.

His testimony came as the FBI investigates Blackwater USA personnel for their role in a Sept. 16 shootout that left 11 Iraqis dead. A report critical of the firm, which protects U.S. diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan, was also released Monday by a key congressional committee.

Another incident involved a shooting by a drunk Blackwater employee after a 2006 Christmas Eve party in Baghdad.

Those incidents and others have led lawmakers to question whether the government is relying too heavily on the private contractors who fall outside the military courts martial system.

Blackwater a scapegoat for bigger problems: Prince

On Tuesday, Prince vigorously defended his employees, describing his guards as courageous individuals who face the same threats and high-stress environment as U.S. military personnel.

He noted that 30 of his employees have been killed, but no Americans have died, while under the company's watch.

Prince refused to say whether former Blackwater employees were guilty of murder, saying it would be up to the justice department to pursue charges against overseas contractors.

Regarding the case of the Christmas Eve shooting, Prince said the company fired and fined the individual. "But we, as a private organization, can't do any more," he told the House panel. "We can't flog him. We can't incarcerate him. That's up to the Justice Department. We are not empowered to enforce U.S. law."

During his testimony, Prince cast his company as a scapegoat for broader problems associated with the government's reliance on security contractors.

Conduct hurting U.S. mission: Democrat

Henry Waxman, a Democrat from California and committee chairman, expressed frustration at State Department representatives for providing little information about Blackwater and its conduct in Iraq.

He added that conduct by these types of firms exacerbates Iraqi hostility toward the American mission.

"If we don't have enough troops to do the job, then we should get more troops," said Waxman. "But if we're going to go on the cheap to get private contractors, we're not on the cheap at all. It's costing us more money and I believe it's causing us problems with the Iraqi people."

Virginia's Tom Davis, the committee's top Republican, said the State Department is trying to get it right, but acknowledged problems with monitoring of the contractors.

He said it's hard to know whether the incidents are the result of a "cowboy" culture or high-risk missions.

Blackwater is one of the State Department's three private security contractors.

With files from the Associated Press