The bearing of a man in uniform, even in civilian dress … Erik
Prince gives evidence to the House of Representatives oversight
committee this week.
For those who have been in Iraq, the private Blackwater security teams are a familiar and frightening sight. As they barrel along Baghdad streets in heavily armoured black Chevrolet Suburbans ferrying their cargo of US State Department officials, people know to get out of the way.
Blackwater's mode of operation is notorious in Baghdad. While other firms choose less conspicuous vehicles, the Blackwater convoys are unmistakable, often charging along the wrong side of the road, horns blaring. Private helicopters sometimes support the vehicles. Heavily armed men always do.
Since 2005, Blackwater has been involved in 195 reported shooting incidents, twice the number of the two other contractors working for the US State Department. But it also claims a 100 per cent success rate in guarding its charges, which naturally impresses its clients.
"It's no wonder they haven't lost anyone, because they enforce a security bubble around the convoys and anyone who enters it is a threat and is treated as such," says one security contractor who has worked in Iraq for a rival firm, but does not want to be named.
"If a vehicle or person enters that bubble, the Blackwater guards will react. They might use high-powered torches to signal people to move back, or they might start pointing guns and shooting in front of or at the vehicle. I've had them point guns at me because I inadvertently entered the bubble, even though I am a big white guy."
But on September 16 something went horribly wrong, leaving at least 11 Iraqis dead and the American public wondering how it could ever hope to win the hearts and minds of those they are supposedly helping (see side story). The spotlight is now firmly on Blackwater and Congress is asking: "How is it that we came to be relying on these mercenary forces? Why is it that they seem not to be accountable under either Iraqi or US law? And why this particular company?
The man who was asked to explain this week to the House of Representatives oversight and government reform committee was Blackwater's media-shy founder and chief executive, Erik Prince.
The State Department had initially tried to block Prince's appearance, but then relented, allowing him to give evidence for several hours on Tuesday.
At 38, Prince is in effect the commander of the world's most powerful private army. He looks like Hollywood's take on a soldier, even in civilian dress. His straight blond hair is cut army-short, with just a little length in the neat fringe. He is tanned, fit and good-looking, with sharp blue eyes and the bearing of a man in uniform.
As he appeared before the committee, he seemed tense at first, like a soldier entering dangerous, unfamiliar terrain. But as the questioning continued, Prince's demeanour changed and he began to exhibit some of the cockiness for which his Blackwater guards are renowned.
When the Democrat Danny Davis asked him whether he admitted that Blackwater personnel had shot and killed innocent civilians in Iraq, Prince responded: "No, sir. I disagree with that. I think there's been times when guys are using defensive force to protect themselves, to protect the packages, trying to get away from danger, there could be ricochets, there are traffic accidents, yes. This is war.
"You know, since 2005 we've conducted in excess of 16,000 missions in Iraq, and 195 incidences with weapons discharge. In that time, did a ricochet hurt or kill an innocent person? That's entirely possible. Again, we do not have the luxury of staying behind to do that terrorist crime scene investigation to figure out what happened."
The story of Blackwater's meteoric rise is both Prince's personal story and the story of how wars can make private companies very rich, very quickly. Despite coming from a wealthy Michigan family, Prince wanted a career in the military.
He initially attended the US Naval Academy, where he first encountered Navy SEAL teams, the elite special forces of the US Navy responsible for unconventional warfare, counter-terrorism, hostage rescue and special reconnaissance operations.
In a rare interview with a local newspaper, The Virginian-Pilot, Prince said he did not enjoy the academy and finished college in Michigan. In 1992, though, he re-entered the navy and moved to the Navy SEALs, based in Virginia Beach, where he served for the next five years. During that time he was deployed to Haiti, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
But personal circumstances ended his service. In 1995 his father, Edgar, died suddenly, leaving Erik's mother, Elsa, in charge of a car parts manufacturing business. She sold the business for $US1.3 billion, enabling Erik to establish a training business in Virginia Beach.
"As I trained all over the world, I realised how difficult it was for units to get the cutting-edge training they needed to ensure success. In a letter home while I was deployed I outlined the vision that is today Blackwater," he told The Virginian-Pilot.
So, at 27, Prince was running his own business with a stated mission of offering the military and law enforcement agencies "expert instruction and world-class training venues".
That might have been the original vision, but Blackwater was to become much more.
As the oversight committee chairman, the Democrat Henry Waxman, put it: "There may be no federal contractor in America that has grown more rapidly than Blackwater over the last seven years."
In 2000, Blackwater had just $US204,000 in government contracts. Since then it has received more than $US1 billion in federal contracts, and more than half of these contracts were awarded without full and open competition.
"Privatising is working exceptionally well for Blackwater," Waxman said.
"The question for this hearing is whether outsourcing to Blackwater is a good deal for the American taxpayer, whether it's a good deal for the military, and whether it's serving our national interests in Iraq."
Answering questions on Blackwater's finances, Prince was unable to say what proportion of his contracts had come through no-bid processes, even though committee researchers say more than 50 per cent were awarded without open tender.
As for the profit on contracts, it varies from contract to contract, although Prince did acknowledge a profit of 10.4 per cent on providing security personnel.
"Some contracts we lose money on. Losing three helicopters this year was certainly beyond the scope of math," he said as he batted back attempts to examine his business dealings.
What Waxman went out of his way to avoid mentioning was Prince's extraordinarily close connections to the Bush Administration, the Republican Party and several right-wing Christian groups that have underpinned George Bush's support base. But that is precisely where leading Democrats want to go in the next few weeks as they zero in on Blackwater and its ties to the Bush Administration.
Prince's family are blue bloods of the Republican party.
His late father was instrumental in creating the Family Research Council, one of the right-wing Christian groups most influential with the Bush Administration. His mother runs the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation, which has given generously to Christian groups, and they were affiliated with the Council for National Policy, a secretive Christian organisation whose meetings have been attended by the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, the former defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Paul Bremer.
Erik's sister, Betsy, married into the DeVos family, the founders of Amway and one of the biggest donors to the Republican Party. She served as the state chairwoman of the Republican Party in Michigan from 1996 until 2000 and from 2003 to 2005.
Prince has made personal donations of nearly $US300,000 to Republicans. He served as an intern in the White House of George Bush snr for six months and is a director of Christian Freedom International, a group devoted to helping Christians who are persecuted.
The impeccable connections almost certainly helped Prince get started. Robert Young Pelton, the author of Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, reported that one of Blackwater's earliest contracts was a no-bid $US5.4 million deal to provide security guards in Afghanistan. Pelton says Prince made a call to A.B. "Buzzy" Krongard, who was then the executive director of the CIA, to help clinch the deal.
But Prince's big break came in 2003, when Blackwater won a $US27.7 million contract to provide personal security for Bremer, the newly appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Frank Gallagher, who had provided personal security for the former secretary of state Henry Kissinger when Bremer was managing director of Kissinger's consulting firm, was put in charge of the team.
Prince has continued to surround himself with well-connected Republicans. The chief operating officer and general counsel for Blackwater is Joseph Schmitz, who worked as a special assistant to the Reagan era attorney-general Edwin Meece and whose father was a two-term Republican congressman. Prince employed Schmitz in September 2005, a month after he left his job as the inspector-general of the Defence Department, responsible for overseeing the Pentagon's $US42 billion in military contracts.
The vice-chairman of Blackwater is Cofer Black, a 28-year CIA veteran who has worked in covert operations and who was head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Centre at the time of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Black joined Blackwater in 2004.
The Washington Post says Black has a gift for the theatrical and his colourful presentations while at the CIA earned him special access to the White House. It is Black who, in the days after September 11, is supposed to have ordered a CIA field officer to bring Osama bin Laden's head back packed in dry ice, so it could be shown to George Bush.
Black is also closely identified with America's controversial interrogation and rendition program, under which terrorism suspects are flown to CIA-run prisons at unknown destinations in Europe and Afghanistan. He told Congress in 2002: "After 9/11 the gloves came off." Another company controlled by Prince, Presidential Airways, has a contract to transport terrorist suspects on behalf of the Administration and is believed to do the transfers.
Another former CIA figure is Rob Richer, Blackwater's vice-president for intelligence. He was the head of the CIA's Near East division until September 2005, when he left for Blackwater. In the ensuing months the kingdom of Jordan hired Blackwater to train its intelligence services, instead of relying on a CIA program Richer had helped to establish.
Finally there is Fred Fielding, now the White House counsel, who was hired by Blackwater to fight a case brought by relatives of four Blackwater employees who were tortured and killed in Falluja in 2004. The connection, though no longer that of client-counsel, remains.
The immediate focus of the US Congress in the wake of the horrific killings in Iraq has has been to rein in the 160,000 contractors working in Iraq and ensure that they are subject to US laws. On Thursday the House of Representatives passed a bill by 389 votes to 30 making companies such as Blackwater subject to US law in Iraq.
Members have clearly been appalled by their discovery of the legal vacuum in which contractors such as Blackwater have operated. The situation stemmed from an agreement for immunity from Iraqi law dating to the first days of the occupation, but many are now asking why the agreement was allowed to continue and why the State Department did not act earlier to ensure accountability.
A similar bill must still make its way through the Senate before becoming law and observers are predicting it will encounter resistance from the White House.
There are also likely to be further questions about the State Department's apparent tolerance of Blackwater's methods in Iraq and why, as the employer, it has not been prepared to rein in its contractor, or deal with incidents.
But Henry Waxman and the Democrats are unlikely to stop there. They have sniffed that this might be a tale of political patronage and there may be a high-profile scalp to be had out of the Blackwater affair. They will now be demanding a great deal more information about the Administration's dealings with Erik Prince.
FOR those who have been in Iraq, the private Blackwater security teams are a familiar and frightening sight.
As they barrel down Baghdad streets in heavily armoured black Chevy Suburbans ferrying US State Department officials, people know to get out of the way. The Blackwater convoys are unmistakable. Often they charge down the wrong side of the road, horns blaring. Sometimes they have private helicopter support. They always have heavily armed men.
Since 2005, Blackwater has had 195 reported shooting incidents, twice that of the other two contractors working for the US State Department. But they also claim a 100 per cent success rate in guarding their charges, something that naturally impresses their clients.
"It's no wonder they haven't lost anyone because they enforce a security bubble around the convoys and anyone who enters it is a threat and is treated as such," says one security contractor who has worked for a rival firm.
"If a vehicle or person enters that bubble, the Blackwater guards will react. They might use high-powered torches to signal people to move back, or they might start pointing guns and shooting in front of or at the vehicle," he said.
On September 16, something went wrong, leaving at least 11 Iraqis dead.
The spotlight is on Blackwater and Congress is asking: "How is it that we came to be relying on these mercenary forces? Why is it that they seem not be be accountable either under Iraqi or US law? And why this particular company?"
The man who was asked to explain this week to the House Oversight Committee was Blackwater's media-shy founder and chief executive, Erik Prince.
The State Department initially tried to block Mr Prince's appearance, but then relented and he gave evidence for several hours on Tuesday.
At 37, Mr Prince is effectively commander of the world's most powerful private army. He looks like Hollywood's take on a soldier, even in civilian dress.
At first, as he appeared before the committee, he seemed tense, but as the morning wore on, Mr Prince began to exhibit some of the cockiness for which his Blackwater guards are renowned.
The story of Blackwater's rise is both his personal story and the story of how wars can make private companies very rich, very quickly.
Mr Prince, who comes from a wealthy Michigan family, chose a military career. In 1992, he entered the US Navy's officer candidate school and then moved to the Navy SEALS, the elite special forces based in Virginia Beach, where he served for five years. He was deployed to Haiti, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
This is a MUST read !
Blackwater - Congressional
Liberals in Congress lost their war on Iraq, they are losing their attempted spending spree to the veto pen, they lost their tepid fight to upend Rush Limbaugh and impose the “Fairness Doctrine” upon free speech.