Sixty Minutes (2007-10-14) Lara Logan
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More Info: Blackwater
Founder Erik Prince Says Blackwater Guards Came Under Fire In Controversial Shooting
(CBS) Blackwater USA has been called the largest private army in the world but little is known about how it operates. The company has a thousand highly trained and well armed security specialists on the ground in Iraq alone, hired by the U.S. government to protect American officials.
But some of those men are now under investigation for the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad last month. It's not the first time the company has been accused of reckless Rambo-like behavior.
The man who founded Blackwater, former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, doesn't like talking to the press but with his company under attack, he agreed to do an interview with 60 Minutes' Lara Logan this past Friday to defend his men and reject charges that they are arrogant guns for hire, mercenaries, accountable to no one.
"I'm an American working for America. Anything we do is to support U.S. policy. You know the definition of a mercenary is a professional soldier that works in the pay of a foreign army. I’m an American working for America," Prince says.
60 Minutes met Prince at his sprawling headquarters, 7,000 acres carved out of swampland in a remote part of North Carolina. This is the staging ground for Blackwater operations in Iraq. The company has a manufacturing plant which makes its own brand of armored personnel carriers. There's also an aircraft hangar where brand-new helicopters are being tuned up to transport and defend State Department personnel in Iraq, which is Blackwater's main mission in the war. The contract is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The company's security contractors, who earn as much as $20,000 a month, have developed a reputation of shooting first and asking questions later.
"Some of the words that are commonly used to describe your guys, at the risk of making you angry, 'blond guerrillas,' 'cowboy attitude,' 'reckless,' 'arrogant,' 'aggressive,' 'excessively aggressive,'" Logan remarks.
"That's not an accurate allegation," Prince says. "Our guys, most of them are decorated military veterans from either Iraq or Afghanistan already."
Asked why he thinks this perception about Blackwater exists, Prince tells Logan, "General misunderstanding because we've not been able to communicate what we do and what we don't do these last few years."
In our interview, Prince was eager to communicate Blackwater's version of what happened when 17 civilians were killed in Baghdad last month. He says it all started with a massive car bomb that exploded outside a building where Blackwater was providing security for an American government official.
What happened next is in dispute. Iraqi survivors and witnesses say a Blackwater convoy opened fire without provocation, shooting and killing unarmed civilians. Erik Prince disagrees.
"Bad things usually don't happen by themselves in Iraq," Prince tells Logan. "Our guys get shot at on an almost daily basis. They don't even record all the times they take fire."
Based on what he knows at this time, Prince doesn't believe that anybody did anything egregiously wrong. "I've not seen…any evidence to support any kind of egregious, malicious, intentional wrong behavior," he tells Logan.
"So, when you hear the Iraqi government complete an investigation in record time, I think, a matter of days and pronounce you 100 percent guilty, what's your reaction?" Logan asks.
"I take it all with a grain of salt because three of our full armored State Department trucks had bullet pockmarks in them. And one of them was even disabled from the enemy small arms fire," Prince says.
A source close to Blackwater claims a picture, broadcast on 60 Minutes for the first time, shows bullet marks on the left side of one of the company's armored vehicles. 60 Minutes has no way of independently verifying that claim. The entire incident is still under investigation by the FBI.
"I'm glad the FBI's investigating. I am glad they can be a neutral party. And if there’s further investigation or prosecution even needed, if someone really did wrong and meant badly, I'm all supportive. Because we want this to be past us. We want justice to be done. And we want the guys to be able to clear their names, to do their job and to move forward," Prince tells Logan.
A U.S. military report on the shooting says Blackwater employees were not attacked and the killing of civilians was a criminal act.
"What's your response to a U.S. military report that says Blackwater basically were not attacked?" Logan asks.
"I think before, before the military starts releasing reports like that they should probably wait till the Justice Department completes their investigation," Prince says.
"Why do you think the U.S. military didn't find any evidence or ammunition, spent cartridges that they say would have been used the Iraqis. And they did find spent cartridges and some ammunition used by your operators?" Logan asks.
"It's a very large area to search. I doubt they did a CSI-like investigation," Prince replies.
When he testified before Congress, Prince admitted his employees have made mistakes in Iraq. 60 Minutes asked him how many times those mistakes have led to the loss of innocent life.
"That's an unknowable, it's an unknowable number," Prince says.
"The State Department report puts that figure at ten. Would you agree or disagree with that?" Logan asks.
"I haven't seen that figure. But that's entirely possible. Out of 16,000 PSD operations, our guys have resulted in any kind of firearm use less than one percent of the time," Prince says.
"You know when I was in Iraq when this incident happened I spoke to a number of different operators in different private security firms and most of the time people said to me 'Blackwater are more aggressive than us.' Why do you think that is?" Logan asks.
"Unfortunately we have to go into some of the most predictable venues again and again and again. We're protecting the most high-valued targets that the terrorists would love to kill. Nothing would look better for their camera than having dead American diplomats on the street," Prince says.
Prince has seen his own dead employees treated like trophies by terrorists. Four of them were killed, burned, mutilated and hanged in Fallujah in 2004. They've been honored with other fallen Blackwater personnel in a memorial garden inside the North Carolina facility.
"We lost 27 in Iraq and three in Afghanistan. We've had well over 100 wounded and ten seriously wounded," he tells Logan.
Asked how many diplomats and other people under the protection of Blackwater have been lost, Prince tells Logan, "No one under our care has been killed or injured."
Despite that achievement, Blackwater is in trouble. Iraqi authorities want the company booted out of their country and its employees to stand trial in Iraq. The State Department has responded to Iraqi pressure by tightening control over the company, a move Prince says he welcomes.
"We absolutely want more oversight. We welcome the accountability. We want a good name for this industry because we think it plays an important role for what the U.S. policies are going forward," Prince says.
Meanwhile Prince says his security teams will keep doing what they’ve done in thousands of missions -- protect American diplomats -- and at times go beyond their contractual obligations to help others, as they did earlier this month when the Polish ambassador's convoy was bombed.
"Once again, our guys answered the call that was put out," Prince says. "And I was mighty proud watching that video. Because they put a helicopter in the street with power lines on one side and light poles on the other, again, above and beyond the scope of our contract. But the guys take personal risk themselves to help somebody that's in need. And we're darned honored to be able to do that."
But in Iraq the company is not honored, it's hated. Many believe Blackwater just doesn't value Iraqi life.
"I know you said the loss of innocent life is a tragedy. Do you regret it, do you wish it never happened?" Logan asks.
"Absolutely, but I wish there were no major insurgency in Iraq. I regret that more. I regret the poor Iraqi family that is trying to send their kids to school and worried about them getting blown up while they are walking. Or the suicide bomber that blows up the market while the wife is getting groceries," Prince says.
"People want to know from you, they know about the terrorist bombs, they know about the loss of huge civilian casualties, Iraqis have lived through all of that. When I talk to them they want to know from you, from Blackwater, that you wish those people had not been killed that you wish innocent people didn’t have to die as a result of anything that you’re involved in," Logan says.
"It is absolutely not our wish that any innocent civilians should ever die," Prince says.