Features

Mystery man

Iraq | Erik Prince and the U.S. government are keeping a lid on how they do a $1 billion-plus business together

Issue: "A mighty fortress is our sect," Oct. 20, 2007

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.

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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.

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