Posing for Vanity Fair in a black leather chair posing is the last place Erik Prince anyone expected to turn up. The story itself is based on how unusual this occurrence is, unthinkable until last summer when Blackwater, the company he founded in 1997, was dragged through the mud yet again. He argues that Congress turned him into a scapegoat after Blackwater's support of CIA operations in Pakistan was outed by the New York Times.
“I put myself and my company at the C.I.A.’s disposal for some very risky missions,” says Prince. “But when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus.” Now he, “wants to vent. And he wants you to hear him vent.”
A good source of information on the general workings of America’s covert operations, he’s the prime source on Blackwater. Access into his world gives a staggering perception of Blackwater marching across Afghanistan and into any future hot spot counterinsurgency analysts can dream of.
Prince’s heavily fortified, 7,000-acre compound in rural Moyock, North Carolina acts as the flagship for a network of facilities that train roughly 30,000 attendees a year, some 125,000 navy personnel through its programs. Revenues topped $600 million in 2008. A fleet of planes, helicopters, and boats is ready to transport men, weapons, ammunition, and high-tech.
Blackwater is likely the most advanced private security organization on earth.
From his compound Prince projects his power, claiming he and a team of foreign nationals found and fixed a target in October 2008. “In Syria,” he says, “we did the signals intelligence to geo-locate the bad guys in a very denied area.” A U.S. Special Forces team then launched a helicopter assault to hunt down al-Qaeda middleman Abu Ghadiyah.
He also shines in Afghanistan, where the Blackwater network is expanding at a rapid pace. During his visit, Prince travels in a beat-up “native” minivan - animal pelts on the dashboard, prayer card dangling from the rearview mirror.
Prince protects every major American diplomat, most CIA officials, many Afghan officials, and is building forward operating bases on the border with Pakistan. He brags, “Who else has built a fob along the main infiltration route for the Taliban and the last known location for Osama bin Laden?”
“Except for their language,” his men, “appear indistinguishable from Afghans. They have full beards, headscarves, and traditional knee-length shirts over baggy trousers.” The same trend is occurring in Pakistan.
And Prince’s reach stretches beyond South Asia. Though he refuses to explain in detail, he spoke generally of opening intelligence roads into hostile countries where CIA presence was minimal or non-existent.
Among the ideas that haven’t gotten off the ground: “a pre-positioning ship—complete with security personnel, doctors, helicopters, medicine, food, and fuel—and stationing it off the coast of Africa to provide ‘relief with teeth’ to the continent’s trouble spots,” and a rapidly deployable brigade rentable by foreign governments.
Unfortunately for Prince and America, his message misses its mark and does little to clear the air. Restoring Blackwater's image is improbable largely because of the above testimony, which multiplies the suspicions of military-industrial complex. Prince’s account of how America ran its covert operations under Bush also puts President Obama in a hole.
When Leon Panetta says he canceled Blackwater’s contract to load missiles onto drones in Pakistan, how do we know he really did?
Blackwater’s contracts have been “canceled” before, according to Prince. Most are top secret, unknown to Congress. Why would this time be any different? When US ambassador Anne Patterson denies that any Blackwater employs operate in Pakistan when they clearly do, she has all the more reason to lie about its activities in Karachi. Or she may not know.
In a classified hit list drawn up by Bush’s team, Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr. AQ Khan was tracked by Blackwater agents to Dubai. Thankfully Washington aborted the assassination, as the political scandal would have lasted a generation. But if Khan had been killed, Prince wouldn’t have been at fault for the uproar in Pakistan. That would be his handlers who kept the program from Congress.
The source familiar with the Khan mission said, “They say the program didn’t move forward because they didn’t have the right skill set or because of inadequate cover. That’s untrue. The operation continued for a very long time in some places without ever being discovered. This program died because of a lack of political will.”
With Blackwater in demand more than ever now that Obama's surge in Afghanistan is underway, its programs have all the will they need. The definition and legality of private military contractors (PMCs) must be somehow be reconciled with the need to maintain secrecy. President Obama must push this task to the forefront of his agenda - he can’t be caught sleeping and awoken by an atrocity.
How America fights wars has an enormous impact on its future, and private contracting is all the rage. What are PMCs? Mercenaries? Vigilantes? In what situations can they be used? How will they be policed by the government and military?
Prince hates the term mercenary, but he's being payed to fight wars. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but the terms must be indisputably defined and the law properly enforced. Prince doesn’t like being a villain, but he knows he'll keep getting paid.
Though he considers himself the fall guy, it's America who falls when “Blackwater contracted to assassinate AQ Khan” hits the headlines, when they get caught in Karachi.
President Obama must keep PMC's in check and not overly rely on them if he becomes desperate. Blackwater is tempting, but it's spreading fear in Pakistan (defined by the West as terrorism) under America's name. Geopolitical implications have been forgotten.
Obama’s going to be in Afghanistan and Pakistan until the end of his presidency, one term or two, and Blackwater will be right behind. He must be vigilant that his asset doesn’t turn into a liability. Iraq proved that 99 successful missions can be wiped out by a single civilian death.
Obama must reign in Blackwater, not be controlled by it.