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At Blackwater, time is now told in 'before' and 'after'

Virginian Pilot (2007-10-28) Joanne Kimberlin

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At Blackwater, time is now told in 'before' and 'after'

The Virginian Pilot

October 28, 2007

Last updated: 11:03 PM

MOYOCK, N.C.

Erik Prince was two hours late for the interview when he stepped into the cavernous lobby of Blackwater's headquarters. He made no apologies, gave no excuses. He'd been upstairs, behind closed doors, with his people.

Lately, a crisis seems to erupt just about every day at Blackwater. There's no telling what derailed him Thursday afternoon.

As Prince settled into an oversize chair, gunfire rat-a-tat-tatted outside and tires squealed in the rain - a typical soundtrack at the 7,000-acre training compound.

Elsewhere, it was anything but business as usual.

In California, wildfires were closing in on the canyon where Blackwater plans to expand.

In Washington, the company's name was on the lips of a congressional panel whose members were grilling Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In Iraq, the U.S. ambassador - the top diplomat under Blackwater's care - was using the word "horrific" in connection with Sept. 16.

Was Thursday a rough day? Actually, Prince said, it was "pretty mild."

That says it all about Blackwater's new world.

Still, there are worse things than being Erik Prince. He's 38, tan, fit and wealthy. A former SEAL and an heir to a Michigan auto-parts fortune, he once lived in Virginia Beach but now resides in Mc Lean with his wife and seven children.

Most of his time is spent up there, at Blackwater's offices near his home. He heads to Moyock at least once a week, often in the pilot's seat of the company's eight-passenger Cessna.

"Still very friendly territory," he said of the small town Blackwater has called home since 1997.

At the edge of the company's land, fresh white paint hides red handprints left on a sign by protesters earlier this month. Demonstrations might be regular fare elsewhere, but that was a first for Moyock.

Did Prince feel violated in his refuge?

"No. That's part of their rights as Americans."

Besides, he said, the protesters were "professional activists.... They were not local folks from Moyock."

Prince does feel betrayed by others. Politicians. Lawyers. Bureaucrats.

He said his company has run nearly 17,000 missions for the State Department in Iraq and Afghanistan, and before Sept. 16 had "zero" complaints from the department about its methods.

More than that, he said: "We have successfully protected every American put in our care."

Now, he feels as if Blackwater is the "fall guy."

It has propelled him to leave the shadows. Prince was famous for avoiding the media and fiercely protecting his private life - even hiding his face from photographers with his hands.

No longer.

"If we don't defend ourselves, nobody's going to," he said.

His public initiation came at the hands of Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who summoned Prince to Washington on Oct. 2 to answer questions. Prince, a longtime Republican donor, spent four hours alternately being praised by that party and pounded by the other.

"I think they have the misperception that we have these high-level Republican ties, which we don't," he said. "I met the president twice. Iraq is a controversial war - no question. If they can go after contractors and take some of them down... it's another way to embarrass the administration."

Since the hearing, Prince has grown more comfortable in the spotlight - though it would be a stretch to say he enjoys it.

"I'd love to go quiet again," he said.

During Thursday 's interview, Prince tapped his sunglasses impatiently on his thigh, checked his cell phone constantly, balked when a photographer asked to shoot video and made a beeline for the door the moment the conversation ended.

But before he bolted, Prince spoke his mind. Love him or hate him, agree or disagree, here's what Prince had to say about:

The Oct. 2 hearing

His first thought as he entered the packed room and a barrage of cameras began clicking: "Good God. My days as a covert operative are done."

On his testimony, which impressed most observers:

"I did my homework. I did not go there to apologize. I went there to correct some gross inaccuracies about our organization.... I didn't have anything to hide. I believe we meant well in what we've done... and yeah, we've made some money along the way."

Prince said he was more nervous at his big SEAL's test 15 years ago than he was at the hearing.

"Put it this way: I had tremendous respect for the men in that room."

About reports that he pocketed his nameplate from the witness table for a souvenir: "I did."

Partisan politics

"Getting caught in the plate tectonics of the political fights in Washington is certainly more than we bargained for. We got to where we are not through politics or political connections.... So yeah, it's an unexpected downside getting caught in the middle of that rub.

"I know we're there not only to be a protective screen... but maybe the fall guy when something goes wrong. That's probably what's happened to us in this case."

The Sept. 16 shootings

News stories have said that contractor reports indicate at least one Blackwater guard pointed his weapon at another to stop the shooting.

"No, I'm pretty confident that didn't happen. We actually went back there and asked the guys. They emphatically said that was not the case."

Prince said he goes to Iraq or Afghanistan four or five times a year, but he has not been since the shooting and has not personally spoken to any of the men involved. He said photos of bullet pock marks on one of the convoy vehicles prove his men were fired upon. But how does he know those holes aren't from an earlier mission?

"We do a pretty thorough job of documenting damage to vehicles."

Life outside Blackwater

Running the company leaves little time for anything else - especially these days. Family time has been shortchanged. Rest is nabbed where and whenever.

Prince said he never turns off his phone. Bad news, such as the Sept. 16 Nisoor Square shooting, makes it ring in the middle of the night.

He does not read everything written about Blackwater - there's too much "nonsense out there."

He tries to work out regularly. He likes to hunt. But there isn't much free time. "You can imagine we have a busy house with seven little kids. I spend as much time with them as I can, and with my wife as well."

Five of his children are boys - the youngest born in March. Prince hopes one of his sons takes over Blackwater someday.

"They will all be strongly encouraged to serve in the military. That's just part of what I believe a man should do."

Prince said the pressures of his position do not keep him awake at night. "How can I sleep? Because I'm comfortable, and I know what we're doing. We're doing the right thing, so beyond that, I can't worry. I sleep the sleep of the just. I'm not feeling guilty."

Weapons smuggling

There have been reports that some of Blackwater's guns might have found their way to the PKK, a Turkish Kurd group labeled as a terrorist organization by the United States.

"I can truly say I have no knowledge of any of us smuggling any weapons that wound up in the hands of the PKK or anything like that....

"I'm sure a lot of those claims come from two former Chesapeake police officers that came to work here, that we caught in an internal audit and found out they'd been stealing some things and they were fired.... Those guys were convicted, and their sentencing is within the next two months or so. I think as part of that they've come up with some nonsense to try to lighten their sentence."

Pressure from Congress

Waxman wants Blackwater to turn over details about its government contracts, compensation paid to Iraqi families for deaths, Prince's salary, company revenues and more.

"I think we'll comply with a lot of that. Some of it is not really germane.... We're not a publicly traded company, and we're not going to assist our competitors."

Waxman also alleged that Blackwater tried to take two Iraqi aircraft out of the country in 2005. Prince scoffed at the charge. "We'll also be providing all the receipts for those aircraft or those pieces and parts. They were completely unflyable derelicts in downtown Baghdad. Again, I'm sure some anonymous source was complaining about that. It was a lot of hullabaloo about nothing."

The company's future

Is Blackwater done in Iraq? Prince said that's up to the State Department. The company's contract automatically renews in May if the department doesn't cancel it. If Blackwater leaves Baghdad, Prince said, part of him will be relieved. "It's been a source of huge controversy and hassle for us."

Prince said security work is less than half of the company's business, and in the future it will be "a lot less." He said he expects significant growth from the company's training work, aviation business and niche products - such as the Grizzly, Blackwater's new armored personnel carrier.

And the globe has plenty of other trouble spots. Prince wants to try his hand at "peacekeeping" - working in places such as Darfur, Sudan, where a civil war has killed hundreds of thousands. Prince believes his men could provide a shield that would stop the violence.

He even contacted actor George Clooney, who has traveled to Darfur and spoken out about the situation there.

"A friend of mine who knew his agent or somebody did call, basically inviting him to say, 'Hey, if you want to talk about peacekeeping opportunities and how we can make it better, we'd love to have that conversation.'

"I mean, who can watch Hotel Rwanda and not want a different outcome?" Clooney never called back.

Why Prince doesn't just walk away

"I really enjoy the people I work with. I love the camaraderie. I - we - built this place from scratch... so I identify with it. I'm kind of like a farmer in that sense - I cleared the land and built something, and I'm extremely proud of it.

"We've done a lot of good things in 10 years.... We've done what was asked of us. " He is thinking about changing one old habit: campaign contributions.

"I don't know that I'll have much political involvement in either party going forward."

Senior editor Carl Fincke contributed to this report.

Joanne Kimberlin, (757) 446-2338, joanne.kimberlin at pilotonline.com

2007 Hampton Roads.com/PilotOnline.com

Media Form edit

Title At Blackwater, time is now told in 'before' and 'after'
Publisher Virginian Pilot
Author Joanne Kimberlin
Pub Date 2007-10-28
Media Link http://home.hamptonroads.com/stories/print.cfm?story=135689&ran=160141
Note
Keywords Blackwater
Media Type Linked Article
Book ISBN
Author Name Sortable
Topic revision: r1 - 2007-10-29, RaymondLutz
 

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