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PHILADELPHIA – Erik Prince – the founder of the private security firm once known as Blackwater – embarked on a publicity tour here on Friday, defending mercenaries as intrinsic to the birth of the United States and lashing out at the federal government that he believes unfairly persecuted him.
In a talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia to promote his new book, "Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror," Prince seemed uninterested in image rehabilitating, preferring instead a dose of bravado and score-settling.
If Prince's Blackwater still existed and had been in charge of U.S. diplomatic security in Libya, he said, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens would not have died in the September 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi.
Prince said mercenaries are invaluable and as old as America – a country "founded by private companies."
"The Jamestown colony was actually a publicly traded company on the London stock exchange, and they hired a guy like John Smith, who was a professional soldier, to come and protect the colony," he said.
Prince has never acknowledged that Blackwater was at fault for controversies that arose during its troubled but lucrative run during the 2000s providing protection to U.S. diplomats, training Afghan police for the Pentagon or, in Prince’s own words, acting as "a virtual extension" of the CIA. In recent interviews, he has evinced unapologetic pride in his company’s work, which boomed after the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, earning Blackwater billions of dollars in government contracts. Blackwater became infamous after its contractors killed at least 14 Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad intersection in 2007.
On Friday, the only outward sign that one of the most controversial figures in modern U.S. warfare had arrived in town was the half-dozen protesters braving the early morning chill in scarves, skull masks and Vietnam War veteran shirts to greet Prince.
"This guy is a person of interest in homicide, money laundering and trafficking of women," said Jody Dodd, 56, a paralegal at a Philadelphia law firm who was among the protesters. "This city on a regular basis detains young African-American men on less of a basis than this guy."
Since leaving Blackwater in 2010, Prince has launched the Frontier Resource Group, an Abu Dhabi-based private equity firm that he said would focus on logistics and mining. He has also recently surprised some observers by calling for cuts to the same "bloated" U.S. defense budget that helped make him rich.
Prince, whose father founded an auto parts company and died unexpectedly soon after Prince became a Navy SEAL in the 1990s, said on Friday that Blackwater was his attempt to spur innovation in the private security industry in the same way his father had responded to more efficient Japanese companies decades earlier.
"No one had ever done it on an industrial scale," Prince said, comparing Blackwater to an assembly line. "It was almost a Toyota-(style) linear flow."
By Prince's metric, Blackwater performed flawlessly at keeping U.S. government officials safe – even as its employees, in his view, received little acknowledgement for the dangers they faced. No government employee or VIP under Blackwater’s protection was ever killed, Prince said, though 41 of its own employees died in action and hundreds were wounded.
Shortly before Prince left, in 2009, Blackwater renamed itself Xe Services, then changed its identity once again, in 2010, to Academi. Only around 10 instructors from the Blackwater era remain with Academi.
In Prince's telling, Blackwater's fall came after it was unfairly maligned in the media and persecuted by the U.S. government. Indictments and subpoenas against its top officials came at the prodding of politicians with a grudge against Prince, he said, even though his contractors were doing the job they had been given.
In Iraq, he said, Blackwater troops guarding employees of nongovernmental organizations always used dashboard-mounted cameras on their vehicles to document any possible confrontations. But the State Department refused to allow those cameras on its missions, making it difficult, he said, for contractors to prove what happened during a confrontation. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Prince claimed that State Department requirements to protect its personnel at all costs forced his troops to behave aggressively.
During the deadly confrontation in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, a Blackwater team shot and killed an Iraqi woman and her sons as they drove toward the square. The contractors then ignited the woman's car with a flare or sound grenade, prompting return fire from Iraqi police and soldiers as the contractors continued to shoot into the crowd. Fourteen unarmed Iraqi civilians were killed and 18 wounded, precipitating the beginning of the end of Blackwater’s work in Iraq. One Blackwater contractor pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2008 and after a long investigation, four others now face recently refiled charges in federal court in Washington, D.C.
According to Prince, FBI investigators and doctors treating victims of the firefight found AK-47 rounds in Blackwater vehicles and the bodies of wounded Iraqis, apparently indicating that men other than Blackwater troops had fired that day. On Friday, he compared the incident to the shooting death near the U.S. Capitol last month of an unarmed 34-year-old woman who had been driving erratically and rammed into security barricades. Police fired at the car as the woman’s child lay in the back seat.
The officers who chased and killed the woman were applauded, Prince said.
"I cannot even imagine the hue and cry if contractors were doing that job instead of uniformed employees of the government," he said.
To critics, Blackwater got off easy. In 2005, the top security official at the U.S. embassy declined to investigate a separate incident involving Blackwater guards who fired 70 rounds into an Iraqi’s car. According to documents released to USA Today in 2009, the official suggested that an investigation would have "lowered the morale" of the contractors.
U.S. officials who faced grilling by Congress in 2007 defended the government’s reliance on contractors such as Blackwater, saying they could not possibly protect employees with full-time government security personnel alone. "There is no alternative except through contracts," Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, said in 2007.
But the Nisour Square incident proved to be too much, and Blackwater lost its license to provide security in Iraq when it expired two years later. In 2008, Blackwater's pitch to sell the U.S. military an armored personnel carrier called “the Grizzly” was rejected by the Army. Prince viewed the move as a politically motivated slap, and he stepped down as CEO the following year.
"It's a good lesson, it's a painful lesson in selling anything to the (Defense Department) that they’re really incapable of making a truly merit-based decision. There is way too much politics involved in it," Prince said of the Grizzly episode.
New work in Africa
Speaking on Friday, Prince recalled an eight-week training course that Blackwater had administered for Afghanistan's border guards. The Afghan men were so uneducated, he said, that the contractors had to teach "intro to toilet use." But Blackwater, he said, provided the troops with fuel, electricity, batteries and the training they had lacked.
"I would speak at some of these (border guards) graduations and I would say, 'Look, we’re happy to be here, we’re happy to help train you, because you've been suffering under war for 30 years and enough is enough,’" Prince said. "’And we're happy to be part of that solution trying to help you live a peaceful life,’ and whether that's in Iraq or in Afghanistan, that's the goal we're after."
Today, with the fate of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan unclear, violence there is rising and the Taliban remains strong. Blackwater’s eight-week training course and the supplies it provided may not have done much to advance an Afghan vision of a solution.
But Prince – who said he had grown unhappy with government "haranguing" and a "blizzard of subpoenas" – has moved on. He now plans to direct the Frontier Resource Group's investments in "energy, mining, agriculture and logistic opportunities," in Africa.
"We're very excited about Africa," he told the audience. "It can again be the breadbasket of the world."
As the talk finished, a long line of attendees formed to ask Prince to sign their books. Several protesters, after quietly entering the auditorium and being asked to leave by security guards, shouted from the rear: "Psychopath! War criminal!" Prince smiled and signed a book.