Erik Prince is the founder and former chairman of the notorious private security firm Blackwater Worldwide—now called Academi—whose activities in Iraq and elsewhere led some observers to term it a modern-day "mercenary army." Prince's track record includes being an important financial contributor to the Republican Party, backing various conservative causes and rightist groups in the United States, and serving as an informal adviser to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, where he has assisted efforts to train mercenary desert armies.
Blackwater has been the subject of numerous criminal and congressional investigations related to weapons trafficking, corruption, and using excessive force, among other charges. Though he sold the company and moved to Abu Dhabi in 2010, Prince has continued to defend it against these charges. "The government chose to prosecute my people for doing exactly what was asked of them," he complained in early 2013.
Later that year, Prince published Civilian Warriors, a personal memoir dedicated in part to dispelling what Prince claimed were misperceptions about the Blackwater record—particularly concerning its employees' behavior in combat, the company's secrecy, and his own political connections. "Civilian Warriors is an angry book," opined a Bloomberg Businessweek write-up of the memoir, "and some of Prince's contentions have made immediate headlines: He argues that ill-conceived State Department regulations led to Blackwater's many firefights in Iraq; he has accused former CIA Director Leon Panetta of blowing his cover as an intelligence asset; and he contends that, had Blackwater still been providing security for America's diplomats, Chris Stevens, the ambassador killed in Benghazi, would be alive today."
The book is also a screed against government incompetence and a paean to military contracting. According to Businessweek, Prince wanted the book "to prove two things he strongly believed in: the dynamism of the private sector, and that some of the world's most frustrating problems—piracy, warlords, genocide—could be solved by small groups of highly trained men with guns."
In interviews, Prince admitted that publishing the book was in part about making money, claiming he "didn't make a whole lot of money out of the whole Blackwater experience" after paying out legal fees from its various imbroglios. But he also took the opportunity to expand on his own political views, including on the military budget and social spending. "I think it's very important to bring some budget sanity back to how America spends its money on defense, on intelligence, on everything, including social programs," he told Talking Points Memo in December 2013. "I want to take away the notion that it's unpatriotic to cut the defense budget because there's plenty of room to do it to make it more efficient," he added. "You know, can the right and the left then cut the grand bargain to do social programs, reduce defense spending, just cut everything, and have the country live within its means and really unleash the entrepreneur?"
In remarks that surprised some observers, Prince also inveighed against the growth of the national security state. "America is way too quick to trade freedom for the illusion of security," he told Daily Beast reporter Eli Lake. "Whether it's allowing the NSA to go way too far in what it intercepts of our personal data, to our government monitoring of everything domestically and spending way more than we should. I don't know if I want to live in a country where lone wolf and random terror attacks are impossible 'cause that country would look more like North Korea than America." Although he said that he was "all in favor of killing terrorists," Prince also predicted that the United States would reap a "bitter harvest" from its targeted assassination program, calling it particularly "troubling" that the U.S.-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki "was killed with no due process other than he got on the 'kill list.'"
Since leaving Blackwater, Prince has entertained a number of other ventures, including advising the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, training mercenaries in Somalia, and "working with Chinese businesses to start projects in Africa." He said in December 2013, "There was a small announcement of an aviation company I bought being purchased by a Hong Kong company. There'll be some more announcements coming up in the next couple months."
The Private Mercenary Business
Prince has a long and controversial track record of involvement in the private military business dating back to 1997, when he and another ex-Navy SEAL, Al Clark, founded Blackwater, in part with assets Prince received form the sale of his father Edgar's lucrative automotive business. According to one account, Prince and Clark initially planned to develop "a training center for police and military personnel. Prince later said the idea sprang from the lack of adequate facilities he experienced during his SEAL training. The men settled on a now-7,000-acre facility along swampland in North Carolina."
Prince recalled in 2007, "The special operations community had been using private facilities since the late '70s, you know, individual shooting experts, schools, and no one had really done it on a grand scale. At the same time, there were a lot of government facilities that were maybe not the best maintained and not the most user-friendly. And so I started something like an individual shooting school, very relevant for operators, for SWAT teams, for military units on a much bigger scale, in close proximity to one of the largest concentrations of the military right there in the Norfolk, Virginia area."
Business was initially slow, but the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole "led the Navy to look for someone to train sailors to identify and respond to terrorist threats. Blackwater won a contract. But business really soared after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks—from about $200,000 in federal contracts in 2000 to $25 million in 2003 to nearly $600 million" in 2006. By late 2007, Blackwater had received $1 billion in federal contracts. The U.S. government outsourced jobs previously done by the army, and Blackwater began taking on contracts to protect diplomats in Iraq, among other things.
Prince told Charlie Rose, "We got into the security business because we had excellent trainers, we had a great curriculum, and we had big facilities that we could do large amounts of personnel that needed to be trained to a very high standard to do high-end security. So when the government demand came for a lot of extra security, especially after 9/11, in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, we competed for a lot of those. We were called, 'Can you do this, can you do this fast?' And we answered the call and we got it done."
In fall 2007, Prince's company came under intense scrutiny after its employees opened fire on and killed 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians who were apparently trying to flee the scene of a car bombing. The Blackwater guards were under a State Department contract. In the outcry that followed, the House of Representatives held a hearing on Blackwater and the privatization of military work. In his prepared statement, Prince insisted that though any loss of innocent life was tragic, "based on everything we currently know, the Blackwater team acted appropriately."
In the aftermath of the killings, Blackwater claimed it had immunity from prosecution. Some government officials, however, took a different view. "In my mind, the fundamental question that remains unanswered is this: Why have we come to rely on private contractors to provide combat or combat-related security training for our forces?" Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote in a July 10, 2008 memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen. "Further, are we comfortable with this practice, and do we fully understand the implications in terms of quality, responsiveness and sustainability?"
In December 2008, the Justice Department announced the indictments of six former Blackwater contractors for their roles in the 2007 killings. Responding to the indictments, Prince tried to describe his company's work as patriotic, writing in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, "Last week the Department of Justice announced charges against six Blackwater security guards for a shooting incident in Baghdad in September 2007. But before the histories are written, it is crucial to understand the often mischaracterized role of security contractors in this unique war. … While some of our critics seize upon inaccurate labels, I doubt they have ever known one of our contractors personally or been protected by them. Our teams are not cooking meals or moving supplies. They are taking bullets. They are military veterans who have chosen to serve their country once again. Very few people know someone who would voluntarily go into a war zone to protect a person he has never met. I know 1,000 of them, and I am proud that they are part of our team."
In July 2008, several months before the indictments, the company announced that it would pull back from the security business. The Associated Press (AP) reported, "Blackwater executives say they have unfairly become a symbol for all contractors in Iraq and thus the company is a target for those opposed to the war. It will continue guarding U.S. officials in Iraq but its future will be focused on training, aviation and logistics." Prince told the AP, "The experience we've had would certainly be a disincentive to any other companies that want to step in and put their entire business at risk." The AP reported that Blackwater "has expanded its aviation division, which provides airplane and helicopter maintenance and also drops supplies into hard-to-reach military bases. A 6,000-foot runway is under construction and a large map in the company's hangar shows units based across the world, from Africa to the Middle East to Australia."
In March 2009, Prince announced that he was stepping down as CEO of Blackwater but remaining as chairman. He told the Wall Street Journal that he was "worn out by the whole thing, the politics of it all." Shortly before this announcement, the company undertook the first of a series of rebrandings, changing its name to Xe. Prince said that the new name was based on the chemical symbol for Xenon, explaining: "It's an inert, non-combustible gas."
Then, in June 2010, Prince announced that Blackwater Worldwide would be put up for sale. In a statement explaining the move, Prince said, "Performance doesn't matter in Washington, just politics." A month before the announcement, Prince honed his anti-government message in front of an audience in his hometown of Holland, Michigan: "The greatest threat to our freedom and prosperity is not al-Qaida, the Taliban, Iran or even China. It's an idea, the idea that we can spend our way out of our problems without tightening our belt and paring down the very bloated government."
With Blackwater apparently behind him, Prince moved to the United Arab Emirates in 2010, where he had been hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi to create a battalion of troops comprised of Colombians, South Africans, and various other foreign nationals. According to the New York Times, "The force is intended to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts, the documents show. Such troops could be deployed if the Emirates faced unrest in their crowded labor camps or were challenged by pro-democracy protests like those sweeping the Arab world this year."
The move came about just as new allegations emerged regarding purported sanctions violations by Blackwater and Prince. McClatchy Newspapers reported in June 2010 that Prince had been seeking out new business in East Africa, specifically defense contracts in southern Sudan while Sudan was under U.S. economic sanctions.
According to a 2010 investigative report by the Nation's Jeremy Scahill, Prince had been recorded advocating that the U.S. government "deploy armed private contractors to fight 'terrorists' in Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia and Saudi Arabia, specifically to target Iranian influence." Prince is also heard on recordings responding to a question about the Geneva Conventions, saying: "You know, people ask me that all the time, 'Aren't you concerned that you folks aren't covered under the Geneva Convention in [operating] in the likes of Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan? And I say, 'Absolutely not,' because these people, they crawled out of the sewer and they have a 1200 AD mentality. They're barbarians. They don't know where Geneva is, let alone that there was a convention there."
Prince's contracting work did not end with his relationship with Blackwater. In October 2012, the New York Times reported that Prince had been involved in an ill-fated attempt to create a private anti-piracy force in the semiautonomous Puntland region of Somalia with backing from the United Arab Emirates. The effort was led by a Dubai-based company called Sterling Corporate Service, a successor company to the firm Saracen International, described by the Times "as a South African private military firm hired by the emirates and composed of several former members of the Civil Cooperation Bureau, the feared paramilitary squad during the apartheid era." Prince, in his role as an adviser to the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, "made several trips to the Puntland camp to oversee the counterpiracy training."
A 2012 United Nations report about the project called it a "brazen, large-scale and protracted violation" of the arms embargo in place on Somalia, and alleged that Somali trainees were beaten and some killed during training. The project created a force of some 500 well-armed soldiers, who were eventually abandoned and left unpaid by Sterling in early 2012. "Sterling is leaving behind an unpaid but well-armed security force in Puntland," Andre Le Sage, an expert at National Defense University, told the Times in 2012. "It's important to find a way to make them part of a regular force or to disarm them and take control of them. If that's not done, it could make things worse."
Prince was born into a prominent conservative family in Michigan. He served as an intern in 1992 in the White House of President George H.W. Bush and, later for Gary Bauer's Family Research Council, an influential Religious Right organization that his father, Edgar Prince, helped found.
Prince apparently did not find his experience at the White House altogether positive, saying later, "I saw a lot of things I didn't agree with—homosexual groups being invited in, the budget agreement, the Clean Air Act, those kinds of bills."
In 1990, Prince worked at Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's (R-CA) office, where he met and worked with future Blackwater lobbyist Paul Behrends.[33i]
A Naval Academy dropout, Prince eventually graduated from the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan. In 1993, shortly after graduating, Prince "landed a spot with the Navy SEALs, performing secret missions in Haiti and Bosnia."
In a 2007 exposé on Blackwater for Salon.com, Ben Van Heuvelen reported on Prince's track record of "giving to Republicans and cultivating relationships with important conservatives." Observers have speculated that Blackwater's success was linked to Prince's political connections. "[O]ne of Blackwater's earliest contracts in the national arena was a no-bid $5.4 million deal to provide security guards in Afghanistan, which came after Prince made a call to then CIA executive director Buzzy Krongard," Van Heuvelen wrote. "What's more, Harper's Ken Silverstein has reported that Prince has a security pass for CIA headquarters and 'meets with senior people' inside the CIA. But Prince's most important benefactor was fellow conservative Roman Catholic convert L. Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American occupation government in Iraq. In August 2003, Blackwater won a $27.7 million contract to provide personal security for Bremer."
Prince, who converted to Roman Catholicism from the Calvinist Dutch Reform Church in 1992, has supported rightist Christian groups via the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation, where he has served as vice president. In fiscal 2006, the nonprofit foundation contributed nearly $8 million in grants to predominantly, if not exclusively, socially conservative groups, including $510,000 to the Family Research Council; $500,000 to the international proselytizing group the Haggai Institute; $1,000,000 to the Alliance Defense Fund; and more than $1 million to the Christian Calvin College in Michigan.
Prince's own nonprofit, the Freiheit Foundation, which he ran with his first wife Joan, funded a smaller but similar roster of conservative groups, including the Acton Institute, the Education Freedom Fund (where Prince's sister, Betsy DeVos, has been a board member), and Christian Freedom International. In 2000, Prince's Freiheit Foundation gave $500,000 to Prison Fellowship Ministries, a group that was once led by the notorious Nixon official Charles Colson, and contributed $30,000 to the American Enterprise Institute. The Freiheit Foundation appears to have stopped operating after Joan's death in 2003.
Prince also served on the board of Christian Freedom International, which reporter Robert Weitzel described as "a crusading missionary organization operating in the overwhelmingly Islamic countries of Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq."
Prince's family (including his late father Edgar, mother Elsa, and sister Betsy) has been deeply involved in conservative politics. Edgar, who founded the family automotive business, was a major backer of right-wing political and Christian groups, and was eulogized by Gary Bauer, who referred to him as his "mentor." Betsy married into a powerful Michigan Republican Party family, the DeVoses, and Elsa (now Elsa Prince Broekhuizen after remarrying) has served on the boards of right-wing groups including the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family.
In a 2006 study on funders of anti-same sex marriage groups, scholar Sue O'Connell wrote that Elsa Prince Broekhuizen was the top individual contributor in Michigan to causes supporting amendments to limit same-sex marriage in 2004, giving $75,000 to Citizens for the Protection of Marriage. O'Connell further explained Elsa's family and political ties: "Broekhuizen is the mother of Betsy DeVos, who was serving as chairman of the Michigan Republican Party in 2004. Betsy DeVos is married to Dick DeVos, currently a Republican candidate for governor of Michigan. Dick DeVos' father is Amway co-founder Richard DeVos Sr., who gave $20,000 to the committee [Citizens for the Protection of Marriage]. Two other DeVos family members gave a combined $30,000."
The Prince family also has strong ties to the Council for National Policy, a secretive right-wing nationalist group whose membership has included a number of high-profile conservatives, including Gary Bauer, Jeffrey Bell, Edwin Feulner, Jack Kemp, Edwin Meese, Tommy Thompson, and Paul Weyrich. Edgar Prince was a longtime board member; Prince Broekhuizen served as president for several years; and Erik Prince's Freiheit Foundation donated money to the group.