They say that in war the first casualty is truth. That may be why investigators from Baghdad to Capitol Hill are finding it difficult to get at the truth regarding Erik Prince and the company he leads, Blackwater USA.
Not that many sources aren't trying. The Iraqi government became the first to release a detailed report of an investigation claiming Blackwater gunmen needlessly killed 17 Iraqis-one policeman and 16 civilians-at a busy Baghdad intersection Sept. 16.
The week before, Prince sat before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee for more than five hours, answering mostly hostile questions from mostly Democratic lawmakers.
Front-page articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post portray Blackwater as a secretive organization run by wealthy power players in the Republican Party. Times columnist Maureen Dowd complained of a "mercenary-evangelical complex" and at one point Focus on the Family issued a formal statement clarifying its relationship with the Prince family. But some blog sites became only more fevered, portraying Blackwater as George W. Bush's private militia used by him and his friends in the Council on Foreign Relations and the Tri-Lateral Commission to run up oil prices and take over the world.
In the face of the intense scrutiny, Blackwater launched a campaign of its own. While Paul Behrends, a Blackwater senior executive, told WORLD, "Our company doesn't do media," some of its proxies do: Blackwater's legal counsel hired PR mega-firm Burson-Marsteller to help Prince prepare for the congressional hearing and to paint a better picture of the private security firm.
In its version, Erik Prince is an American hero, a former Navy SEAL who-at great financial risk-founded a badly needed military training center in 1997 in the swamps of eastern North Carolina. There, both U.S. military personnel and Blackwater employees hone their skills to an elite level. The result: Blackwater-trained personnel provide protection to key government officials in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the world. And, according to Prince, though more than 30 Blackwater personnel have died in the line of duty, not a single client has lost his life.
Like most myths, there's some truth to go around. Erik Prince appears a heroic figure with an evangelical and conservative pedigree. He was raised in Holland, Mich., a part of the country that has quietly become an epicenter of the American evangelical movement, in large part because of the Prince family's auto-parts company, which sold for $1.3 billion and has since funded conservative and Christian causes, including Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council (see sidebar).
Prince himself, 38, was a student leader and athlete at Holland Christian Schools. He earned a private pilot's license at age 17 and attended the U.S. Naval Academy for three semesters. Some press reports say he left after becoming disillusioned with the Academy, finding the students there not serious enough. He graduated from Hillsdale College, a school renowned in conservative circles for its free-market ways, including a refusal to accept government funds.
Prince became a Navy officer, eventually joining the SEALS. He resigned his commission when his father unexpectedly died in 1995, forcing Prince, barely 27 years old, to take over leadership of the family fortune. Less than two years later he founded Blackwater. Adding to Prince's personal drama, his wife died of cancer in 2003, leaving him with four small children.
In 2004 Prince remarried and the couple just had their third child, according to Blackwater spokesperson Anne Tyrrell (daughter of American Spectator publisher R. Emmett Tyrrell). Tyrrell acknowledged that Prince left the Dutch Reformed faith in which he was raised in Holland, Mich., and is now a Roman Catholic. Then she quickly added, "That's all I'm going to say about Mr. Prince's private life."
Behrends told WORLD that Prince has on staff at Blackwater headquarters a Roman Catholic chaplain, who is a retired Navy captain and former National Security Administration chaplain. Blackwater plans to construct a chapel at its military complex in Moyock, N.C., this year.
On the business side of the ledger, Prince and Blackwater have been defined by 9/11, after which the company's growth exploded. Over the past decade Blackwater has received more than a billion dollars in business from the U.S. government alone.
The Sept. 16 shooting in Baghdad-and the Iraqi government's forceful demand that Blackwater be removed from duty in Iraq-triggered questions from lawmakers and the media about oversight and accountability of private security contractors in Iraq. In response, both the State Department and the Justice Department ordered the contractors not to divulge information and sealed their own investigations, but not before published State Department records revealed that five other shooting incidents involving Blackwater are also under investigation.
Tyrrell told WORLD, "I can't say anything related to the Sept. 16 incident. I can't discuss it because it is being investigated by the FBI." She said Blackwater is "contractually prohibited, but not by our own choice" to keep operations in Iraq classified.
Some of those who've worked with Blackwater in Iraq-and benefited from its protection-have come to its defense. Pete McHugh, now with the Joint Forces Staff College in Virginia, is a Department of Transportation employee who spent more than a year in Iraq with Blackwater providing security for him and his staff of 18.
"I have firsthand insight into their professionalism," McHugh said. "They saved my guys from harm."
McHugh said: "Blackwater would not only do intelligence on the meeting site, but would protect us there, and while going and coming. They would send an advance team to check the route and the destination. There were places they wouldn't let us go."
U.S. military forces could take over such tasks, McHugh acknowledged. "The question is, do you want them to do that? The military is overqualified and has more than its plate full. Do you want the military providing primary security for a bunch of bureaucrats? I don't think so."
Of course, McHugh's experience, while instructive, does not prove or disprove whether Blackwater personnel involved in the Sept. 16 incident and others under question may have behaved badly, even illegally.
As for Prince himself, during his day of testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he seemed to grow bolder as the day went along. Asked at one point about Blackwater's revenue, he said that Blackwater was a "private company-and there's a key word there: private." And that's how Blackwater-and its U.S. contracting agencies-apparently want to keep it.
The causes of Erik Prince
- Family Research Council Between July 2003 and July 2006, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation gave at least $670,000 to the FRC. Erik Prince is vice president of the foundation.
- Focus on the Family During the same time period, the foundation gave $531,000 to Focus on the Family.
- Christian Freedom International Erik Prince and Paul Behrends, a former aide to Republican Rep. Dana Rohrbacher and now a Blackwater executive, are on the board of this organization that "helps Christians who are persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ."
- Republican Party Made his first political contribution ($15,000) at age 19. Has contributed more than $200,000 to the party or to Republican candidates (from 1989 to the present).
- Susan B. Anthony List Made a $3,500 contribution to this group that supports pro-life candidates.
- Green Party of Luzerne County, Pa. Contributed $5,000 to fund a petition drive that allowed Green Party candidate Carl Romanelli to qualify for the 2006 U.S. Senate race. The Green Party candidacy was expected to help Republican Sen. Rick Santorum against Democrat Bob Casey. Santorum ultimately lost the race.
Sources: opensecrets.org, Philadelphia Inquirer, Holland (Mich.) Sentinel, Salon.com
Teams of FBI investigators that arrived in Baghdad last week are beginning to comb through the evidence surrounding a Sept. 16 firefight in Nisoor Square that left 17 Iraqis dead and put under intense scrutiny the leading U.S. security firm in Iraq, Blackwater USA. While FBI agents are tasked with comparing and contrasting their own findings with those of Iraqi law enforcement, a State Department panel in Washington is reviewing the role of private security contractors in Iraq.
Timothy White, a 20-year FBI veteran who just returned from training Iraqi police and other law enforcement in Baghdad, told WORLD, "My own experience is that the Iraqis are quite capable of doing an investigation of Blackwater or anybody else."
Like other special agents before him, White spent three months on a volunteer assignment in Baghdad training officers in forensics, interrogation, and other investigative techniques. White's tour in Iraq is part of a little-noted program that began shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003 using some of the world's best and most seasoned investigators to pass along tools of the trade to a new corps of Iraqi officers. The special agent told WORLD he concluded after the assignment, "Iraqi officers do exceptional work and provide fair and balanced assessments."
Blackwater often provided personal security details for White as he traveled from the Green Zone, and he noted that no one argues with the firm's success rate or the tough environment in which its guards operate: "This is urban warfare where weapons can appear on foot, in a vehicle, or at the corner. It's every single day. If you took away the private security, I think the military assets would be hard pressed to fill that gap."
While it remains unquestioned that U.S. diplomats and others in Iraq need personal security details, what's at issue in the Blackwater case is whether private security contractors can be more accountable, whether their tactics help or harm the overall war effort, and how to respect Iraqi sovereignty and the rights of civilians in the dangerous environment.
Iraqi police are central to the controversy over what actually happened in Nisoor Square. A police checkpoint operates in the busy intersection, one policeman was killed in the incident, and a major police outpost is just around the corner. Its officers arrived on the scene minutes after Blackwater's convoy sped away and began the initial assessment that led to an Iraqi government report released this month that charges Blackwater guards with the deaths of 17 Iraqis-all killed when the private security detail sprayed the traffic circle with heavy machine-gun fire.
The report calls for the ouster of Blackwater from Iraq, demands that the guards involved in the incident be handed over to face possible trial, and calls for the company to pay compensation to the families of victims of the shootings, totaling $136 million. In a sharp note that has become characteristic of the tone of this controversy, the report said the damages are set high "because Blackwater uses employees who disrespect the rights of Iraqi citizens even though they are guests in this country."
What has tipped Iraqi anger-both official and unofficial-is not only the death toll and disruption private security convoys in Baghdad have come to represent. It's also that their tactics run counter to the protocol put in place under Gen. David Petraeus this year and the emphasis on Iraqi sovereignty stressed by President Bush.
"The key to success in counterinsurgency is protecting the population," states the Army/Marine manual written at Petraeus' direction that forms the basis for the present troop surge and patrols. The field manual, published last year, directs U.S. forces "to make securing the civilian, rather than destroying the enemy, their top priority." Doing so, according to the Petraeus doctrine, is the only way to separate the insurgent "fish" from the civilian "sea."
Co-author of the new doctrine Lt. Col. John Nagl, commander of 1st Battalion, 34th Armor, put it this way earlier this year: "A stray tank round that kills a family could create dozens of insurgents for a generation," and he argues for use of force "with as much discrimination as is possible," especially at checkpoints.