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Congress Hears Emotional Testimony About Lives Lost in Iraq


The families of four privately-employed security guards who were killed in Iraq gave emotional testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday. They told Congress the employer -- a government contractor -- failed to provide adequate protections. On the same day, the U.S. Justice Department indicted five former officials that prosecutors say took millions of dollars in cash and bribes out of Iraq.

Four security guards attacked in March 2004 were shot and burned in Fallujah. The Americans were then hung from a bridge. The gruesome deaths focused attention on their employer -- Blackwater USA -- and other private companies, or contractors, hired by the U.S. government to provide services in Iraq.

Relatives of the victims told a U.S. congressional investigating committee that Blackwater did not provide enough protection.

Kathryn Helvenston-Wettengel lost a son in the attack. "Why were they not in armored vehicles? Why were they not in a team of six? Why were there not three operators in each vehicle? Why were they not provided heavy weapons?"

Donna Zovko's son also died that day. Jerry Zovko also worked for Blackwater. "But they did not give them the tools to work with. They just sent him out to die," she said.

The women included Rhonda Teague, whose husband died in the attack. They are suing the company and seeking an answer to a basic question.

"This is what happened. This is how it happened. You could not see your son's body but we are telling you this is how it is.," Zovko said she was told.

"Every minute of it. Every part of it. The truth," Teague wants to know.

"I do not know about you but I am outraged. Where is your outrage?” asked Helvenston-Wettengel of the committee members.

One Republican Congressman, Darryl Issa, questioned whether their testimony was proper. "Having you here to tell us about your loss when, in fact, it is the subject of a lawsuit that's ongoing and, in fact, this committee has no jurisdiction here."

Chairman Henry Waxman, a Democrat, responded, "We ought to know whether they failed to do that because of indifference or negligence or incompetence. That is very much our job."

Among those defending government contractors, Blackwater lawyer Andrew Howell expressed pride in the company's work in Iraq: "Although our teammates have bled and even died in our mission of protecting other Americans, we have never lost a protectee."

Waxman read from a company e-mail written the night before the attack detailing extra protection the company needed for its employees who were in Iraq at the time.

"Were they short on ammunition and weapons as the e-mail describes?" he asked the company attorney. The reply: "The e-mail describes the situation for the project as a whole. The men who went on the mission on March 31st each had their weapons and they had sufficient ammunition."

In unrelated matter yesterday, the U.S. Justice Department announced indictments of five high-ranking Americans in the original occupation. They are accused of smuggling bricks of cash out of Iraq.

Special Inspector General Stuart Bowen said the five also took bribes from contractors: "We will not tolerate corruption in contractors or U.S. officials and those that engaged in a conspiracy in this case are an example of those that we will continue to pursue."

Back at the House committee, the women complained of what they called a "wild west" mentality among contractors in Iraq:

"There is a hundred thousand contractors over there and there does not even seem to be a law that applies,” said Helvenston-Wettengel. “They literally can get away with murder

Some congressmen on this committee blamed the Pentagon for failing to oversee its contractors. The lawmakers promised to continue investigating the relationship between the Iraq war and private companies.

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