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King of the Contractors

Erik Prince defends his warriors.

Dec 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 14 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The book, he says, was intended “as a factual, well-researched, well-documented clarification of what is and was, [to] set the record straight once and for all. And to make the case that government has gotten way too big, including the defense budget.” Prince adds, “I’d like Republicans to understand that there is plenty of room to cut the defense budget. That this notion of being unpatriotic to cut defense is not true. I love the U.S. military .  .  . [but] when you’re spending more than the next 17 countries combined, it’s an unsustainable number with this kind of debt.”

If contractors are necessary to make the military cost-effective, what limits should be placed on their role? When Prince founded Blackwater, he had no plans to send privately employed soldiers into war zones. Blackwater started out in 1997 as a large compound in rural North Carolina with the sole mission of renting out facilities to the U.S. military and other law enforcement agencies. The post-Cold War military had been shutting down bases and cutting back on training expenses, which was damaging to readiness. 

For instance, after the USS Cole bombing it became apparent to the Navy that firearms procedures and training necessary to protect ships in port had severely degraded, in part because the military simply lacked the firearms ranges needed to maintain the proficiency of soldiers and sailors. The Blackwater compound was built to supply tactical shoothouses, sniper ranges, driving tracks, and other training grounds, all within range of Quantico, Norfolk, Camp Lejeune, and other nearby bases. Had Blackwater stayed in this role, few would question that such a private contractor could be a cost-effective partner with the military.

Then 9/11 happened. The down-sized military was ramping up in a hurry, and Blackwater’s logistical capabilities just kept expanding, all at the behest of Uncle Sam. Soon Blackwater was in charge of providing the security detail for Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of postwar Iraq. The company owned and operated 73 aircraft, which were deployed in support of America’s war efforts. Blackwater was even the go-between for the CIA and Afghan warlords looking to bring down the Taliban. From the beginning, Prince cultivated an aggressive and ambitious culture at Blackwater. “The company grew by just saying ‘yes.’ We didn’t need marketing. We just said ‘yes’ and performed,” he says.

Blackwater quickly became the best-known private military contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. In retrospect, maintaining a much lower profile would have been wise. It also didn’t help that the left-wing opposition to the war on terror was enraged by the fact that Prince is from a wealthy family well-known for funding conservative causes and religious groups such as the Family Research Council. 

In reality, Prince was a standup guy compared with some other contractors—contracts worth $400 million were awarded to a company founded by Tim Spicer, a notorious mercenary whose previous work had included a botched mission to regain control of a copper mine that nearly destabilized the Papua New Guinean government and accusations he violated a U.N. arms embargo while doing shady work in West Africa. 

But the damage to Prince’s image was done. “I never tried to be a hero, but I certainly never wanted to be cast as the villain either,” he says ruefully. “They cast us as villains for saying yes when the U.S. government needed us.” Even if you accept Prince’s insistence that his patriotism always trumped business, the most charitable interpretation suggests a degree of naïveté. Anyone who’s ever read a spy novel knows that doing favors for the CIA and State Department is a good way to end up being burned. 

Looking back, Prince regrets plans he couldn’t bring to fruition—in particular, he wanted to bring military defense and logistical capabilities to bear on humanitarian work, what he calls “relief with teeth.” At one point Blackwater was in the process of “spec-ing” out a 900-foot Maersk ship to rent out space on board to charities and NGOs. The ship would have helicopters, vehicles, generators, and everything else “you need for a Philippines-type disaster or a tsunami in Indonesia .  .  . anywhere around South Asia, east coast of Africa, you’re within four-five days of sailing with 1,700 containers of everything you need for a disaster situation.” When there was no disaster to respond to, the ship could moor off the coast of needy areas and drill wells and set up medical clinics. 

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