Blackwater Scrutinized in Congressional Hearing

Incompetence, cutting corners, over billing and cover-up were the themes today as the families of the four contractors killed in a ghastly 2004 ambush in Fallujah finally got someone's attention in Washington.

Now three years after those gruesome killings, the families of the dead men say the company they worked for, Blackwater USA, has tried to cover-up what led to the tragedy.

"Like everybody, I would also like the truth and the simple question of why?  Why couldn't you give him the protection and the tools he needed to complete his mission?" Kristal Batalona, the daughter of one of the murdered contractors, asked in her testimony before the congressional committee.

It turns out the men, all having served in the military, got lost as they escorted a convoy of trucks carrying kitchen equipment.

The families told Congress they have discovered their men were sent out by Blackwater in unarmored cars, without automatic weapons, no maps and no tail-gunner to provide back-up as had been promised.

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"They just let him out there to die; they did not provide anything for him," said Donna Zovko, the mother of one of the murdered contractors.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman read Blackwater's lawyer a company e-mail, in which the company's operations chief in Baghdad, the day before the ambush, complained about the lack of weapons, radios and armored vehicles. 

"The e-mail ends, quote, 'Ground truth is appalling,' end quote," Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., read.  "Were your forces sent on missions in used Suburbans rather than hardened vehicles as the e-mail describes?"

"Yes, our forces did go on missions; some of which were in soft-skinned vehicles," answered Andrew G. Howell, general counsel for Blackwater USA. 

Blackwater is one of the many private companies that have made huge profits providing bodyguards for top officials, security and other services in Iraq -- what some call the subcontracting of the war, with very limited government oversight.

"It's like a secret army over there that the majority of Americans aren't aware of," testified Katie Helvenston-Wettengel, the mother of one of the murdered contractors.  "But if you are going to subcontract out this war, then there needs to be some laws that apply to these people.

The families are now suing Blackwater, which is countersuing, saying the men all knew the risks when they signed on to go to Iraq.

The testimony today showed that while the men were paid almost $500 per day, the system of contractors and subcontractors meant the government ended up paying almost twice that for each Blackwater employee.

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