Kin of contractors killed in Iraq testify to failures

February 08, 2007|By Paul Richter | Paul Richter,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The families of four security workers killed by a mob in Fallujah, Iraq, told lawmakers yesterday that the workers' employer, Blackwater USA, had failed to provide arms and armor the men needed to survive.

Four female relatives said the men, whose bodies were burned and dragged through the streets in the 2004 attack, had been sent on a dangerous mission in vehicles without armor, maps, heavy machine guns or rear gunners.

"When the decision was made to save millions of dollars by not buying armored vehicles, our husbands, fathers and sons were killed," said Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel, mother of Scott Helvenston, tearfully reading a statement by the group.

They were called as part of an effort by the Democratic majority on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to look more closely at the Iraq war. The panel, chaired by Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat, is investigating whether the Pentagon, by increasing reliance on military contractors, is spending more while sacrificing accountability.

The families have sued Blackwater, maintaining that was the only way they could obtain information on how the men died. Blackwater officials and some Republicans on the committee complained that the panel should not be investigating the subject while the suit is under way because it could affect the outcome.

The four men, all ex-military personnel, were escorting empty trucks to pick up kitchen equipment on March 31, 2004, when they were attacked by a mob. Two of the bodies were strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates River, in a videotaped scene that was widely broadcast.

Relatives say the men were promised $600 a day pay but Blackwater did not honor commitments in written contracts to protect them. Andrew Howell, general counsel for Blackwater, disputed that, saying the company met its commitments.

The Army has confirmed, in response to questions from the committee, that Blackwater was providing security services in Iraq under a subcontract that was layered beneath many other subcontracts issued that were part of a contract between the government and Halliburton Corp.

There were so many subcontract layers, the government was unable for months to find the Blackwater agreement, the Army told the panel. Some lawmakers argued that after each subcontractor adds its charges, taxpayers are stuck with higher costs.

Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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