Erik Prince now lives in Abu Dhabi. The former Navy SEAL and creator of the military-contracting company Blackwater isn’t even sure he wants to remain an American citizen.
“Uh . . . for the record, for now I plan on retaining my U.S. citizenship, but I am very, very worried about the direction of America right now,” he told me on November 18, the day before Civilian Warriors, his book about his time at the helm of Blackwater, was released.
Blackwater was an amazing success story. A company born out of a desire to help America in any way possible, it provided security for diplomats, resupply aid to soldiers, relief to disaster-struck populations, and more. Yet it was ruined by the politics and policies of the government it served. Looking back on the story of Blackwater, Prince worries about the future of the country he had risked his life for and built his company to aid and protect.
His worry is understandable. Not only were he and his company hounded by the press, sued, badgered by Congress, reviled, and subjected to IRS scrutiny, but his time first in the military and then as a private contractor provided a first-person view of the decline of American influence and prestige abroad as well as the depths of government waste and inefficiency.
“You can’t spend yourself off a cliff. You can’t make decisions leading almost to self-immolation and expect the country is going to go on the way it always has,” he said. “America is held in lower regard today wherever I go in the world. It’s not respected. It’s not trusted as a partner. The repeated blunderings of the U.S. ever since the Arab Spring have lowered America’s stock.”
Far more worrisome than America’s standing abroad, says Prince, is the growth of the U.S. government. “I believe unfortunately that the greatest threat to American liberty is becoming the U.S. government,” he told me. “It’s not a foreign enemy any more. It’s the growth and bloat of the U.S. government itself.”
Having spent years as the object of anti-war anger, forced to keep silent by an agreement with the State Department he was hired to protect, Prince has come out in the open to give his side of the story, telling a tale of bureaucratic waste, government malice, and media deceit.
But for Prince, it wasn’t always that way.
He started out with a simple idea: build a world-class one-stop training facility for special-operations personnel, who, at that time, were being shipped to different facilities around the country at the taxpayers’ expense. Financed by the fortune left to him by his late father and informed by his own experiences as a former Navy SEAL, Prince set up shop in 1998 in North Carolina’s Great Dismal Swamp, whose charcoal-colored waters provided the company’s name.
The years from 1999 to 2006 saw the rapid rise of Prince’s company from a struggling training facility and shooting range to a worldwide, billion-dollar corporation. At each crisis, from the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole to September 11 to America’s response in the form of the War on Terror, Blackwater stepped up to the plate, purchasing new equipment, expanding capabilities, and providing personnel where the government was lacking. Eventually Blackwater had contracts flying supplies into the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, guarding American diplomats in Baghdad, and protecting CIA bases in Kabul and Taliban-held eastern Afghanistan. And while Blackwater earned a profit, it offered its services at a fraction of the cost the government would have incurred performing these functions itself.