Families of Guards Killed by Mob in Iraq Say Security Company Failed to Protect Them

A day before four of the company's security guards died in Iraq, a Blackwater USA employee wrote company officials that it was time to stop the "smoke and mirror show" and provide crucial equipment for the private army in the field.

"I need Comms (communications equipment). ... I need ammo. ... I need Glocks and M4s. ... Guys are in the field with borrowed stuff and in harm's way," said the e-mail, released at a House hearing Wednesday.

Blackwater employee Tom Powell wrote the memo to other company officials on March 30, 2004.

The next day, a mob in Fallujah ambushed a supply convoy guarded by Blackwater, killing the four employees who all were former members of the military.

The incident brought to U.S. television some of its most gruesome images of the Iraq war. The guards; bodies were dragged through the streets and mutilated and two of the corpses were strung from a bridge.

In a related development, an Army procurement official, Tina Ballard, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee the service has withheld $19.6 million from Halliburton subsidiary KBR.

The penalty resulted from the Army's discovery, after months of denials to committee members, that Blackwater was hired as a subcontractor under KBR's support operations for the U.S. military in Iraq.

The contract prohibited hiring private guards, leaving that job to the U.S. military.

The Powell memo was released after four family members of the men killed in Fallujah testified at the hearing that their loved ones were not given the armored vehicles, heavy weapons and other protections they were promised.

"I have requested Hard cars from the beginning and from my understanding an order is still pending. Why I ask," the Powell memo said.

Andrew Howell, general counsel of Blackwater, told the hearing the vehicles had some steel plates and were "believed appropriate by everyone involved."

"Did Blackwater meet its responsibilities?" asked committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

"Yes we did," Howell replied.

"Have you skimped on equipment?" asked Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah.

"We have not skimped on equipment, no sir," Howell said.

The hearing became emotional when Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel, mother of slain Blackwater guard Stephen Helvenston, read a statement on behalf of the families. She stopped several times to collect herself.

The three men killed in addition to Helvenston — a former Navy SEAL — were Wesley Batalona, a former Army Ranger represented by his daughter Kristal; Michael Teague, formerly in an Army helicopter unit, represented by his widow Rhonda; and Jerry Zovko, a former Army Ranger represented by his mother Donna.

The families have sued Blackwater, contending that was the only way they could learn the circumstances of the killings.

Howell said the U.S. military had classified the incident and he could not discuss the details.

The Blackwater attorney and several Republican lawmakers said the families were improperly trying to argue their case in a congressional hearing rather than a courtroom.

Helvenston-Wettengel said the security guards were denied armored vehicles, heavy weapons and maps for their convoy routes, and that the rear gunners were removed from vehicles to perform other duties.

"Blackwater gets paid for the number of warm bodies it can put on the ground in certain locations throughout the world," she said. "If some are killed, it replaces them at a moment's notice."

Helvenston-Wettengel said her son was alive when Iraqis tied him to his vehicle and dragged him through the streets. He eventually was decapitated.

Howell said lawyers for the family members were using the hearing for their own purposes, and that it should not delve into an "incomplete and one-sided exploration of a specific battlefield incident."

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said he did not believe the testimony was germane to a house committee scrutinizing U.S. companies with Iraq contracts.