Report: Blackwater skimped on security before Fallujah ambush

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 27, 2007 

Democrats in Congress released a scathing report Thursday on the 2004 massacre of four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah, charging that the company rushed unprepared into a sloppy mission, skimped on security to save money and stonewalled when Congress tried to investigate.

The report ratchets up the pressure on Blackwater, already under intense scrutiny for a Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad that left 11 Iraqis dead.

Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who's seldom seen in public, is scheduled to testify Tuesday before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, whose majority staff issued Thursday's report. The committee, led by Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, will likely grill Prince about the Fallujah and Baghdad incidents and the company's effect on the war in Iraq.

Thursday's report, based on government reports and internal Blackwater documents, said:

_ Blackwater, a for-profit company, opted to use unarmored vehicles to save money and cut essential personnel from the mission. An internal Blackwater report said Blackwater's contract paid for armored vehicles but "management in North Carolina ... made the decision to go with soft skin due to the cost."

_ Blackwater ignored the warnings of a British security firm, which had twice turned down the exact same mission "due to the obvious risk of transporting slow-moving loads through such a volatile area."

_ Blackwater impeded the congressional investigation by claiming that key documents were classified. The documents weren't secret, despite an attempt by Blackwater's general counsel, the Pentagon's former top auditor, to try to persuade defense officials to classify them after the fact.

Blackwater didn't respond to requests for comment Thursday.

Images of the March 31, 2004, ambush were flashed around the world after a mob dragged the bodies of the contractors through the streets and hanged two charred corpses from a bridge over the Euphrates River. The attack set off the abortive first battle of Fallujah in April 2004, which ended with the deaths of 36 U.S. troops, some 200 insurgents and 600 civilians. Fallujah became a haven for insurgents for seven months, until the Marines attacked and captured the city, at a cost of at least 51 Americans and 1,200 insurgents and Iraqi civilians killed. Large swaths of the city were reduced to rubble.

The mission through Fallujah had a hurried and slapdash quality, the congressional report said.

Blackwater was taking over operations from Control Risk Group, a British security company. Control Risk Groups twice rejected the mission to escort three flatbed trucks from Camp Taji through Fallujah to Camp Ridgeway because it was too dangerous to take a slow-moving convoy through such hostile territory.

Blackwater ignored the warnings, the report said. Blackwater also sent its men out short-staffed, with two men in each unarmored vehicle, rather than three. The absence of a third man left them open to attack from the rear. Contractors from another company, Kellogg Brown and Root, told Navy investigators that they met the Blackwater convoy the night before the ambush. The Blackwater team seemed unprepared and hurried, and it ignored warnings from the other contractors to avoid Fallujah because of ambushes.

"It almost felt like they were being pressured to get there and get there as quickly as possible," said one contractor, whom the report didn't name.

After the incident, many Blackwater personnel gave statements or wrote reports describing Blackwater's Baghdad operation as chaotic and lacking qualified workers. One Blackwater employee described it as a "flat-out sloppy ... operation."

Immediately after the ambush, Prince, the Blackwater chairman, directed his Baghdad office to "perform an immediate internal audit and keep the information close."

Waxman's staff described several ways in which Blackwater withheld information.

At a Feb. 7 congressional hearing, Blackwater attorney Andrew Howell testified that he couldn't give Congress key reports about the incident because the U.S. government had classified them.

"Sir, we cannot turn over classified information," Howell said. "It would be a criminal act."

Howell later wrote the committee that Blackwater needed government permission to release the reports, which consisted of Defense Department memos and internal Blackwater documents.

In fact, none of the documents was classified, despite several attempts by Blackwater to have them declared secret.

Blackwater general counsel Joseph Schmitz, a former Defense Department inspector general, went to the Pentagon to deliver an unclassified investigative report on the ambush. Schmitz asked defense officials to classify the report retroactively, although it was marked "unclassified" and hadn't been stored in a classified manner by Blackwater. The Defense Department turned Schmitz down, as it did again in June 2007, when he asked that an internal Blackwater report be classified.

The report quickly made its way to the families of the four slain men: Wesley Batalona, Michael Teague, Stephen "Scott" Helvenston and Jerko "Jerry" Zovko. The families have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Blackwater, which has tangled the case in a legal stalemate for two and a half years.

In a telephone interview from Cleveland, Danica Zovko said she's been trying for three and a half years to find out what happened to her son.

"This is one of the happiest days of my life," Zovko said Thursday, in tears. "People care. Congress can make a difference."

ON THE WEB

Read the report.

(Neff reported from Raleigh and Price from Baghdad. Both are staffers for The (Raleigh) News & Observer.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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