(Corrects the title of Erik Prince’s book in paragraph 4)
Erik Prince is not whining. He wants to emphasize that. “However much I had to put up with, in terms of the assault from all sides, the lawyers and the bureaucrats, pales in comparison to guys who lost their lives, who were maimed, either active-duty military or contractors,” he says, sitting for an interview in a suite at the Times Square Westin in Manhattan earlier on Monday. “I’m just providing a cautionary tale to the next guy dumb enough to run to the sound of the alarm bell. Because the government can drop you on a dime and leave you hanging.” For Prince, who in less than a decade took an obscure training facility in the backwoods of North Carolina and transformed it, with lucrative government contracts, into a billion dollar company before selling it in late 2010, even score-settling is a service to others.
Since he was young, Prince, 44, has striven to be the sort of person who runs toward the alarm. In college he joined the local volunteer fire department, becoming a rescue diver. After college, despite coming from wealth, he joined the military. But not just any unit of the military; he applied to the Navy SEALs and—surviving the brutal attrition of “Hell Week”—joined SEAL Team 8. He left the SEALs after his father’s sudden death and his wife’s diagnosis with breast cancer and then started a business providing private military training to the military and law enforcement.
Blackwater was a way to make his way as a businessman and also a way to meet a shortage of training space that had plagued the SEALs and other special operators. Following the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Blackwater, drawing on its wide network of military veterans, supplied thousands of contractors to guard American diplomats, aid workers, soldiers, and CIA case officers in the midst of violent insurgencies. Even while running the company, Prince has publicly claimed, he did risky intelligence work for the CIA.
For all this, he believes, his reward has been notoriety and politically motivated prosecutions, opportunistic lawsuits, and crude caricature at the hands of the press. Blackwater has one of the worst reputations of any company in recent memory, its name a shorthand for trigger-happy, unaccountable mercenaries. Prince sold the company in late 2010, but for years he has been rumored to be writing a memoir, working with a series of different writers, to set the record straight. Today that book—Citizen Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror—has been published. Here are some highlights of this morning’s interview with Prince that will be part of a longer feature—drawn from interviews with current and former associates—in this week’s Bloomberg Businessweek.
The posture of Blackwater’s personal security details in Iraq and Afghanistan—the armored convoys, the high speeds, all the weaponry—shaped a lot of the way people see the company. In the book, though, you say that all that stuff was mandated by your government clients.
Prince: Everything for the State Department was. The contract was almost a thousand pages. And it told you everything: the background of the guards, what they will do, how they will dress, the equipment they will wear, the training they will go through, the rules of engagement, everything. Contrast that with some of the work we ran for NGOs, where we got to pick the vehicles; we got to pick the routes and the tactics, techniques, and procedures. In those cases, we didn’t get into a firefight ever. Because we had run low-profile with beat-up-looking armored vehicles. They were great armored vehicles, but they were just beat-up-looking to blend in. And when State Department is mandating that you run Suburbans with lights and sirens on the same routes every day, it’s pretty easy for the enemy to play whack-a-mole on you. That’s my point.
If there’s one incident people blame Blackwater for, it’s Nisour Square. On Sept. 16, 2007, Blackwater contractors, claiming they had come under attack, opened fire in a busy traffic circle—Nisour—killing 17 civilians. Do you contend that was the result of State Department regulations, or does Blackwater bear some of the blame for that?
Look, the guys that were sent out that day for the State Department were all people that met way above and beyond the spec required from State Department. They were all prior military veterans, they’d been in the U.S. military, in that same theater, within a few previous years. They followed the tactics, techniques, and procedures dictated by the State Department.
The shooting started because a vehicle failed to stop. It was running right at them and this is just minutes after another major car bombing had gone off. And I just compare that to right here in Washington, D.C., Oct. 3, there was a number of Capitol Police and Secret Service that shot an unarmed woman for a traffic violation, for allegedly trying to jump a barrier near a government building. And she had a baby in her car. And they could have just as easily killed the baby as well. No public outrage. In fact, Congress gave the guys a standing ovation at their mention.
Look, every innocent loss of life is tragic. There was a lot of enemy fire that came back at the guys that day.
Do you remember where you were when you heard about Nisour, when you got the call?
Yeah, I was at home. I think it was a Sunday. I got a call from our in-country manager. I called him and I said: “What’s up? I hear there’s some furor.” He said: “Ah, there’s a firefight today and not much different than many other firefights, you know, attacks that have been going on.” Remember, this is also during the surge of all the U.S. forces in Iraq and trying to be out there.
Do you remember kind of when you realized it was going to be more than just a normal—
Yeah, I’d say within 24 hours. We were saying to State: “When are you going to say something? When are you going to say something, answer the questions, answer the facts? At least putting out facts and information would at least quell the media furor. And the State Department was like a deer in the headlights. They were awful. But that was in keeping with the difficulty of doing that kind of work for the State Department, which bars you also from addressing the media. If people ask if I would do it over again, I would definitely not work for the State Department at all. It’s just not worth it. But on the flip side of that, I’m also very confident that [if we'd] been on the job in Benghazi, the U.S. Ambassador would be alive.
There was a Vanity Fair story that came out a few years ago in which you said you had stood up kind of a Black Ops team at Blackwater that was finding, capturing, and—the implication was—had the capability to kill targets in very hostile places.
There’s been quite a bit written on it for something that should have been a classified program. Actually, it was leaked to various media organizations by people in the government, really over politics. And I’d say my big beef is, if you sign up to do a program like that, the confidentiality is both ways. And when it’s not honored by government people—and the private people that volunteer to serve their country in very difficult and very risky ways, and they get burned for that—it’s kind of a dampening effect for anyone else that wants to step up and serve their country when the bell goes off.
Why did you feel like the appropriate response to the leak would be this Vanity Fair story? To go public in that way?
Well, there’d been so much noise and so many distortions about what me and the company had done, about everything from no-bid contracts to all the rest, that there had to be some amount of fact-checking done. And that’s really the goal of the book—is to lay it out as to what happened, what didn’t happen.
There were news accounts linking you since the sale of Blackwater to a company called Reflex Resources, or R2, that was standing up an army of foreign soldiers for the United Arab Emirates.
I never worked for them. I’ve done a bunch of different consulting all over the UAE. And again, my main effort is running a small fund and investing in Africa.
Well so you didn’t work for R2. But what was your relationship with the company?
It’s one of the companies I consulted for.
O.K. Can you talk about sort of, what sort of services you offered them, what kind of advice?
No. Look, my main effort is running a small fund and investing in Africa. And it’s kind of taking the knowledge of how to operate in difficult places. Because in my old company, we built the Afghan Border Police. We built the bases, did the training—literally while under fire in Afghanistan. So if we can do that there, then running a cement operation in the Congo doesn’t sound like such a bridge too far.