Blackwater founder fires back at critics in new book
Erik Prince says his firm was under “bureaucratic attack.”
MIDDLEBURG, Va. — Hauled before Congress and pilloried in the press, Erik Prince, the founder of security firm Blackwater, is back. He’s not apologizing.
In a new book, Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror, Prince is applying scorched earth tactics, calling out what he says are hypocritical politicians, feckless bureaucrats and greedy trial lawyers.
“I write the book as a cautionary tale for the next entrepreneur that’s dumb enough to run to the sound of the alarm bell,” Prince says during an interview in rural Virginia, where he has a farm. “I knew there were plenty of feckless bureaucrats, but … the bureaucratic attack from all sides was staggering.”
A former Navy SEAL, Prince built a security firm that was pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts at its peak during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He built a vast training area in the woods of North Carolina, protected diplomats in Iraq and did secret work for the CIA.
But after a couple high-profile incidents, Blackwater, by his own description, became radioactive. It was accused of war profiteering and became a lightning rod for a growing number of critics of the Iraq War.
The story behind the headlines is more complex.
The son of a successful Michigan entrepreneur, Prince inherited a fortune after his father died and the family sold most of the enterprise for $1.35 billion.
Prince was restless and driven, determined to model his success on that of his father. He spotted an opportunity while serving as a member of the training-obsessed SEALs.
He was also deeply conservative and sometimes unyielding in his focus and beliefs.
After he left the Navy, Prince cleared a swamp and mosquito-infested woods to build a training facility in Moyock, N.C., where he won contracts to train law enforcement agents and the military. Ultimately, it would include live fire ranges and a driving course.
“I never intended to be a defense contractor in the first place,” Prince says. “I built Blackwater to stay connected to the SEAL teams and to serve that whole community.”
The Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999 presented the company with another opportunity. Within weeks of the shooting, Prince was ready with a 16-room steel building, allowing police to develop techniques to better respond to mass shootings.
“We called the massive structure ‘R U Ready High School,’ ” Prince writes.
A year later, when terrorists struck the USS Cole during a refueling stop in Yemen, Blackwater was asked to train 20,000 sailors in force protection. Many of those sailors hadn’t handled a gun since boot camp.
Prince says one of his employees put it this way: “Erik has been able to anticipate where the buck is going to be.”
Throughout Blackwater’s history, Prince said he would capture business by risking his own money to invest in capabilities or infrastructure.
After 2001, the floodgates opened. The U.S. government wasn’t prepared for lengthy occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and there were a number of services Blackwater could provide.
“We stepped into the void when government bureaucracy wouldn’t respond,” Prince says.
One of those lucrative jobs was protecting American diplomats. Critics charged that Blackwater’s tactics were aggressive. The company responds that it never lost a diplomat in thousands of missions driving around Iraq. (By contrast, a lack of security led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya last year, critics of the administration’s response have said.)
But in 2004, Blackwater burst into the headlines when four of its men were killed while escorting a convoy through Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad. The charred remains of two of the men were hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River by an enraged mob.
The killings would lead to a lawsuit against the company by families of the men and accusations that the company put profits before lives. The attack also put the company on the front pages and on Congress’ radar screen.
The company’s reputation might have survived that if not for a shooting several years later during a mission in western Baghdad. Blackwater guards opened fire on a car that was approaching them and wouldn’t respond to orders to halt. Press reports said 17 Iraqis were killed in the shooting in Nisour Square.
Blackwater supporters contend that the shooting has to be judged by what the men confronted at the time — a car that appeared to be a threat at a time when car bombs were a constant worry. Prince also said that insurgents or police were firing on the contractors.
Prince draws a comparison between the public reaction to the Nisour Square shooting and that of the killing of an unarmed woman by Capitol Police in October when she tried to ram a White House barricade and then led police on a chase toward the Capitol.
“Can you imagine the hue and cry if a contractor had fired any of those rounds?” Prince says.
In 2007, Prince was hauled before the House Oversight Committee, then chaired by Democrat Henry Waxman of California. He remains angered over his treatment.
“I’m not sure whether a person can really gauge the quality of his work by the enemies he’s made, but if I somehow upset Hamas and the Taliban and Henry Waxman, I must have done something right,” he write.
In a statement, Waxman said Blackwater acted irresponsibly. “They were overpaid for their work, and there was little, if any, accountability to the U.S. or the Iraqi governments,” he said.
By 2007, Prince says, the company had become a lightning rod of criticism for those who opposed the Iraq War. He says the State Department, whose employees he protected, never came to his defense and in fact prohibited him from defending himself and the company publicly.
“The left was already angry about George Bush, and they hated the Iraq War,” he says. “In the Vietnam War, the anti-war left went after the troops. Can’t do that this time. It’s an all-volunteer military, so they go after contractors.”
He writes: “I represented everything Democrats loathed.”
Prince says there shouldn’t have been anything controversial about a private company working in a war zone. Governments have always turned to private contractors during wars. In 1775, America’s founders authorized the arming of private war ships to help protect its ports and attack British ships.
Today, Prince has severed all ties with the company, and his new business — an oil and gas business based in Abu Dhabi and focused on Africa — won’t be a U.S. government contractor.
“I was in error in thinking that merit actually mattered to the U.S. government,” Prince says.