Blackwater founder Erik Prince on why private militaries are the future
The founder of one of the most hated companies on Earth believes defense spending should “go on diet,” worries about drone use, and was targeted by the IRS and Democrats for his troubles. He offered to help “save Darfur” and get warlord Joseph Kony yet was vilified by liberals and turned down by both the Bush and Obama State Departments. Meet the Erik Prince you don’t know.
“The greatest threat to liberty in the United States isn’t from any foreign enemy but runaway government spending,” Erik Prince, former CEO and founder of the private military contractor Blackwater, told The Daily Caller in an interview. The bureaucracy in both the intelligence and defense departments has become “bloated, burdensome, and ineffective,” he added.
In what Prince calls a “witch hunt,” left-wing activists and Democrats marked him and his company for destruction. But he has broken his silence about his time as CEO and founder of Blackwater, and he has advice for policymakers and citizens alike in his new book, “Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror.”
Perhaps in the rush to build his business Prince should have invested in PR. He describes the speed with which Blackwater conquered the contracting world. His book may too late to combat the negative views that exist about him. But he said it is hard for some to take seriously his commitment to downsize the government when he won so many government contracts.
Prince, who describes himself as a libertarian Ron Paul supporter and a believer in Austrian economics, told TheDC an unnamed IRS agent admitted to being under great pressure to “get him.” Prince said his company became a “lightning rod” for Democrats who wanted to criticize President George W. Bush over the Iraq war but were afraid to seem unsupportive of the troops.
The State Department barred diplomats who had been protected by Blackwater from speaking publicly in the company’s favor. But Prince argues that the company was vital to American security.
Though 41 Blackwater employees died doing their duty, and despite the excruciating detail in the company’s 1,000-plus-page contracts, nobody in Blackwater’s care suffered serious harm or death, Prince told TheDC. When future vice president Joe Biden, future secretary of state John Kerry and future secretary of defense Chuck Hagel were in a helicopter that was forced to land during a snowstorm in Afghanistan, Blackwater employees rescued them. (Kerry later thanked U.S. soldiers.) It was a Blackwater contractor who tackled the Iraqi journalist throwing shoes at President Bush, not the Secret Service. Blackwater employees protected President Obama during his trip to Baghdad.
Prince argues that hired soldiers have been with America ever since the first private military contractor — Christopher Columbus — landed in the New World. Prince imagines a future where private military contractors (PMCs) help America maintain its commitments abroad while not breaking the treasury. In much the same way NASA sets standards for SpaceX, he thinks the federal government can rely on PMCs to get a realistic assessment of how much things ought to cost by turning to the private sector. “You have FedEx and UPS that you can immediately get a price check with,” says Prince.
“The military can do a lot more with its existing structure, but it needs to get rid of a lot of the overhead,” Prince says. “When you have more Navy admirals than you have ships you’ve got a problem. Spend more on teeth and less on tail. The tail has been getting fatter and fatter and fatter and it’s time to put that side of the military on a diet.”
Prince, who supported Ron Paul in ’08, said he’s troubled by the use of drones made famous by Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster.
“One of my first concerns is how does an American citizen get killed just by being put on an enemies list—on a hit list? What is the due process for that?” Prince told TheDC. “Is there no advantage left to being an American citizen, that with the stroke of a pen from a bureaucrat at the White House you can be put on a kill list? I think that’s a very dangerous precedent. At least Robert E. Lee [the confederate general] had his citizenship stripped, and he was a guy who was really working against the United States.”
“I am a supporter of drones but they’ve got to be used very judiciously because there’s a lot of collateral damage that comes from them,” Prince said. Prince also worries about creating more enemies with drone use. “Those people — particularly in Pakistan and Yemen — hold blood feuds for centuries, so every time we kill one bad guy do we make five more that will come back and work with every fiber of their being to kill more Americans? That’s really what you have to watch out for.”
Prince also stressed caution when selecting targets as well and beefing up American intelligence to separate friend from foe. Seven CIA officers and two Xe (formerly Blackwater) employees were killed on Dec. 30, 2009 when they were blown up by an informant who had been passed on to them by Jordanian intelligence and who helped select targets for drone strikes for over a year and half.
“It is a safe bet that the countless people killed by the US strikes that he targeted were not enemies of the United States, and that their deaths lengthened rather than shortened the list of America’s enemies,” said Angelo Codevilla, a foreign policy expert and former diplomat. (Prince isn’t able to comment about the work he did for the CIA, as much of it is still classified.)
Prince has also worked to safeguard American assets and prevent genocide. Indeed, the very idea for Blackwater came, in part, from watching the feckless U.S. response to the Rwandan genocide. “You can’t watch ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and not wish that movie had a different outcome,” he told me in 2011. Prince found mass graves in Central America when he was working for Congressman Dana Rohrbacher and visited the death camps in Europe when he was boy.
Prince says he offered President Bush and George Clooney “some ideas” to help stop the genocide in Darfur. “One of the particular needs was the ability to lift African Union peacekeepers around the area so they could better protect the population, and they needed helicopters. I said, ‘Look, I’ve got helicopters. I can move ten in straightaway. We’re already operating in rougher places than Darfur’ and we never got a serious response,” Prince said. “There’s people that talk a lot and there’s people that do. We prefer to be on the doing side and less talk.”
Prince was approached by the government about putting a team together to actually go after warlord Joseph Kony in Uganda. “We were denied that license from the State Department. It’s frustrating dealing with the bureaucracy,” Prince said.
The State Department should be restructured, said Prince. “I would make it a lot smaller as well,” Prince says. “When you have a lot of people sitting around you have a lot of committees and a lot of groupthink, a lot less individual accountability. In the same way that you should reduce the defense and intelligence budgets you can do the same thing to the diplomats.”
The State Department blocked Prince from putting cameras in Blackwater vehicles “just like police departments put cameras in their cars — dashboard cams. It protects innocent people, it protects our people, and it protects the company from the ‘he said, she said’ major disagreements that arise from dangerous situations.”
Prince has a reason to want to avoid that kind of confusion. In a 2007 incident, 17 Iraqis were killed in Baghdad’s Nisour Square by Blackwater employees protecting a convoy of State Department diplomats. Blackwater claimed the convoy was ambushed and the contractors engaged in a firefight. The Bush Justice Department charged five Blackwater employees with manslaughter (a sixth pleaded guilty), but a district court threw out the case. The case against four of the Blackwater staffers was reinstated last month.
Ever the constitutionalist, Prince favors using letters of marque to go after terrorists, not massive invasions. “You could actually beef up the Rewards for Justice program [the counterterrorism rewards program of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service],” Prince said. “That would be a heck of a lot cheaper and probably result in getting the terrorists’ immediate enemies or neighbors to turn them over. That’s way cheaper than putting tens of thousands of soldiers and standing armies out in the field looking for specific people.”
Prince has also thought long and hard about reinventing humanitarian aid, much of which is wasted or ineffective. His company has assisted stranded special forces in Mali, missionaries in Kenya, and fellow Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Drawing inspiration from the response to the tsunami in Indonesia, Prince is in the process of acquiring a ship capable of carrying 1,700 containers and about 250 vehicles.
“We would carry generators, water purification, tents, field hospitals, food, water — all the stuff you need in the immediate two to four weeks after a disaster like that,” Prince explains. “With your vehicles you can get your stuff inland. With landing craft, even when the port is destroyed you can get gear in. … We can do all of this with 25 full-time guys. That’s all. Significantly cheaper.”
While there’s a caricature of Prince as a right-wing Catholic crusader, Prince has built mosques for Afghan soldiers and funded the film “The Stoning of Soraya M.”
“I truly believe in religious freedom and in letting anyone be free to practice their faith,” Prince said. “In Afghanistan I took great satisfaction in graduating tens of thousands of Afghans, and took them through eight weeks of excellence—something that they have never experienced in their entire lives because they have known nothing but war, poverty, and deprivation. But for eight weeks, the light switch worked, there was fuel for the vehicle, there was ammunition for training, the instructors knew what they were talking about—all of those things that we take for granted worked. In order to make that all happen and create peace in their country and let them worship freely that’s what they needed first.”
“I’m certainly not there to impose a specific response to religion. Am I Catholic? Probably yes. Do I believe it’s the best way to worship our creator? Yes, I do. But other people are free to choose their path as well,” said Prince.
Many of Blackwater’s critics, including Congressman Jan Schakowsky, have simply made up attacks on the firm and its founder. Schakowsky falsely claimed that Prince had moved to Abu Dhabi to avoid extradition for alleged crimes. Prince actually maintains a residence in Virginia and Abu Dhabi and travels back and forth repeatedly.
Prince believes Schakowsky may also have been involved in disclosing his involvement in CIA-related activities. “If I had to put odds on it I would say that it was her [Schakowsky] that leaked classified information to the media,” he said.