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.
Then came Nisour Square. On Sunday, September 16, 2007, in western Baghdad, Blackwater troops were clearing the road for a diplomatic convoy. A car approaching from the other direction ignored repeated warnings to stop. Fearing another car-bomb attack, Blackwater’s Paul Slough opened fire on the car, occupied, it was later determined, by an innocent man and his mother. What ensued was a pitched battle, the details of which are still disputed. As Iraqi militants fired on the Blackwater men and they returned fire, more than three dozen Iraqi civilians were shot, and eleven of them died.
The result was an international outcry. The Iraqi government demanded Blackwater’s removal from the country. American media outlets blared stories of the “Blackwater Massacre” and “Mass Murder in Nisour Square.” The U.S. Justice Department charged five Blackwater agents with a total of 14 counts of voluntary manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter, and the use and discharge of a firearm during a violent crime. While individual agents were indicted, Blackwater itself faced no charges. Democrats in Congress became furious that the company remained legally unscathed, and in the 2008 elections, the role of military contractors, with Blackwater as their face, became a campaign issue.
When I spoke with Prince, I asked him about the aftermath of Nisour Square. He told me it was the first step in the unraveling of his company. “It was the perfect time for the anti-war Left that during the Vietnam War went after the troops. This time, they went after contractors,” Prince said. “Look, I came from a conservative family, I supported conservative causes in the past, I was the sole owner. We were the perfect target for all those folks to say, ‘That’s it.’ It became a campaign talking point for the congressional elections.”
Prince also thinks the State Department threw Blackwater under the bus, depriving its agents of evidence by barring them from having dashboard cameras in their vehicles, which Prince believes would have exonerated them, and refusing to defend his men, who were acting in defense of American diplomats. “The sad thing is the State Department could have shut down a lot of nonsense with the media by saying, ‘We did an investigation, and this is what it is,’” Prince said.
Perhaps worse, Prince and his employees were unable to speak to the press and give their account of the events because of a gag rule in their contract with the State Department.
With the world seemingly against them and no means of defense, Blackwater personnel were targeted as “cowboys” and “war profiteers,” reckless men endangering the lives of innocent people. What followed was years of court proceedings, bad press, and attacks from Washington politicians. Blackwater changed its name to Xe Enterprises in 2009 and eventually Academi in 2010. Prince, for the good of the company, had stepped down in March 2009.
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Though Erik Prince finished a draft of Civilian Warriors in 2011, he waited to publish until now, when the final prosecutions against five former executives of his company had finished, the men ultimately exonerated and the case dismissed. Now, with the past behind him, he can take the time to tell his story.
“I wrote this book just to set the record straight,” Prince told me. “The characterization of being these overly aggressive war profiteers who were running amok was just not the case. I think the book does a pretty good job of taking those arguments apart.”
To combat the notion that military contractors are a new evil in the modern era performing what ought to be strictly governmental functions, Prince traces the history of military contracting from Columbus — who “with the stroke of Isabella’s pen . . . effectively became a private military contractor,” Prince writes — to Iraq.
“Contractors are strewn all through American history, from the founding of the country and the original colonists, to the building of the Continental Army, to the privateers of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, to the Flying Tigers, you name it,” Prince told me. “Why say, ‘Oh there should never be any fighting contractors?’ because there certainly have been in the past.”
Throughout the book, Prince details the infuriating and counterproductive policies of central control in Washington, especially the State Department. “It’s the curse of dumb policies set back in Washington that say, ‘You will have a Suburban with running lights and sirens, washed and waxed, and you’re going to run the same route every day,’” Prince said, reflecting on those who claimed his company was dangerously belligerent. “It’s pretty easy for the enemy to play whack-a-mole. So, then, driving aggressively is about the only thing you can do to avoid losing people.”
In the light of this troubled past with the State Department, I asked him if there is any bad blood. “I try to forget about them as much as I can,” he said with a laugh. “The sad thing is I know that if we had been on the job in Benghazi, the U.S. ambassador would be alive. We had competent people and did something like 100,000 runs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and none of the diplomats we were guarding was ever killed or injured.”
Despite the way his company was treated by politicians and bureaucracies, Prince still sees an important future for private military contractors, who continue to constitute a large portion of America’s footprint abroad. “In the short term, the key thing is that if we have a competitive contractor system, at least we have a private-sector benchmark as to what things should cost,” Prince said. “The Pentagon budgets $2.1 million a year for every active-duty soldier. So a private contractor can say, ‘That’s bullshit. I can provide a guy with the same qualifications, a 35-year-old man with ten years’ experience, and I can put him in the field for $400,000 a year. That’s one-fifth of what the government spends.’”
Though the benefits of using private contractors are clear, he offered a warning for American companies in the contracting world. “To have my company wrecked by politics is a sad and hopefully a cautionary tale to the next guy who is dumb enough to run to the sound of an alarm bell,” he told me. His one bit of advice: “Don’t be an American company, because you are automatically subjecting yourself to every parasitic, ambulance-chasing lawyer in America.”
Today, from Abu Dhabi, Prince is working with a private-equity start-up on mining, agriculture, and energy exploration, development, and logistics in Sub-Saharan Africa. His next project is to build a petroleum refinery in South Sudan to bring affordable energy to a country otherwise dependent on Gulf fuel expensively transported over sea and land. “That’ll be a very satisfying project, I hope,” Prince told me, “and probably the single greatest act of economic development that country has ever seen. Obviously we’re doing it to make money, but bringing usable energy to the people of South Sudan is long overdue.”
Though he has lived in Abu Dhabi the past three years and is unsure of his future citizenship, his kids attend school in Virginia, and he remains a Virginia resident, taxpayer, and voter.
Reflecting on what in his view is the greatest threat to America — the size of the government — Prince offered one frank solution: “Cut the whole thing.” “There is a ton of room across the board,” he added. “I could cut 40 percent out of the Pentagon easy.”
He worries in particular that Republicans don’t understand the gravity of the situation and are letting their love of the military obscure reality. “For Republicans, you need to take away the notion that it’s unpatriotic to cut the defense budget. I love the military, but it needs to be cost-effective, not just effective,” he said. “We’re not endangering America by cutting the defense budget. We’re endangering it by not.”
Prince is doubtful, though, that politicians will be able to agree on a solution. Instead, he thinks that only crisis — in the form of hyperinflation and budgetary collapse or the next all-out war — will spark reform.
Regardless, Prince foresees a hard future for America, and he’s not sure he wants to be here when that future comes.
— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.