Q&A: Erik Prince & Brian Bonfiglio
Union Tribune (2008-07-27) Editor
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More Info: Blackwater, Blackwater Otay
, Blackwater West
July 27, 2008
Erik Prince, founder and CEO of Blackwater USA, and Brian Bonfiglio, a Blackwater vice president in San Diego, recently met with the Union-Tribune's editorial board. Below is an edited transcript of that interview.
Let's talk about the facility in the southern part of the city. You're under contract with the Navy for training, correct?
PRINCE: Yeah, it was actually our first defense contract. It started back after the Cole was blown up and from what we understand the sailors guarding that ship that day had not trained a whole lot with their weapons.
It was so bad at boot camp, they were down to shooting laser simulators, not even real guns. So this started in 2001, in the springtime. The Navy started looking around, and put out a competitive bid. And we were one of the bidders, and we won the East Coast and the West Coast and we've been doing it here for years through a subcontractor. And we want to take it up a notch to a big state-of-the-art facility, as close as we could get to what we have on the East Coast.
Describe exactly what training you're doing in San Diego.
We teach the sailors how to handle their weapons safely, from small arms safety, muzzle discipline, shooting skills and then movement through the ship.
The thing that's interesting about the contract, each month there's about three weeks' worth of training. Four days of it is associated with firearms. So the rest of the training is all of the pre-incident indicator, all of the stuff that would happen before a weapon would even be drawn.
Even defensive tactics. The defensive tactics piece of it is very similar to what every single law enforcement officer goes through when he goes through his training.
We're teaching them the full extent of the use of force continuum, from verbal commands, recognizing the threat, hands-on force to lethal force.
No offense, but this sounds remarkably basic. Does the United States Navy not train sailors in these things?
This is the training they get. We're getting folks that have maybe some firearms experience in boot camp, but that's all. And this is where they go to learn how to protect their ship and their shipmates.
So how many people do you train? You don't train everybody who comes out of boot camp?
No, these are all people that are going to be qualified as watch standers that might be armed, because not everyone on a ship is armed all the time. Since the inception, we've trained more than 100,000 sailors.
In the San Diego facility, how many do you train at any one time?
One class of 24 students per month.
Why does the Navy contract? Why doesn't it do that in one of its own schools after boot camp?
After the Cole was blown up, they did not have the ranges available; they did not have the instructors; they didn't have the firearms available to do it, so they wanted a turn-key program to get it done.
How much of the criticism that comes your way on the San Diego training facility do you think is essentially a proxy attack on the war in Iraq, with you guys being an easy target?
I think that's about 95 percent of this. I have a hard time understanding how the San Diego citizens are well-served to block a business that pays taxes in the area, built in accordance with the regulations of the city, to train Navy sailors how to protect themselves and their shipmates, to prevent another Cole-like attack, using a rehabbed industrial warehouse that was abandoned, for which the city will be paid more tax revenue now. I have a hard time understanding how that's a bad thing for San Diego.
With your proposed Potrero facility, there was a large element of the community not wanting a disturbance, as they saw it, in their tranquil valley. Do you have any proposals in the works for a Potrero-type of training facility elsewhere in San Diego County?
No, not in San Diego County. I've been out here looking at some other areas, but we are a lot less interested in California than in other parts of the West because it's hard to do business here.
Because of the politics?
The politics, the nonsense of it all.
What would have been the difference between what you're doing now in the San Diego warehouse and what you would have been doing in Potrero?
The bigger facility would have allowed for bigger military units. There would have been a track there, so there would have been a lot of military driver training. The second-largest cause of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, after roadside bombs, is vehicle accidents. So teaching guys how to drive armored vehicles in an off-road, dangerous situation saves lives. It would have allowed for longer ranges, bigger shoot-houses, just a bigger footprint.
I think you guys should look at law enforcement here. Miramar College, no more driver training takes place there. San Diego police, the sheriffs, lifeguards, firefighters – they're looking for driver-training areas at Qualcomm Stadium. Football season's right around the corner, plus all the other shows. So you've got law enforcement officers who are going be hitting the street with minimal to no driver training. That's a liability risk for the city and county. I mean, they're doing the best they can do, but this facility would have allowed our Southern California law enforcement agencies and the military to go train someplace.
You've been accused of doing a stealth campaign in the acquisition of the Otay Mesa warehouse. Why did you choose this particular approach?
We didn't use a stealth approach. The company that does our construction and range development, Raven Development Group, that was the name a lot of the applications were done in.
In Carolina, the permitting was done by the development company?
Yeah, all the construction, ongoing construction. The stuff we did in Illinois was done by the same enterprise.
In Iraq, the issue of immunity from prosecution for American and coalition forces, as well as private contractors, has been a significant hang-up in the negotiations for a new security agreement with Iraq. We had a story earlier this month quoting the Iraqi foreign minister saying that the United States has made great concessions on the issue of immunity. Is that your understanding? And what's your view of that?
We know as much about it as whatever's been reported in newspapers. We received no official word from the Iraqi government or from the U.S. government and we're standing by for our customer to tell us what comes next.
How would that impact you if it turns out that a new agreement does end immunity from prosecution?
I would say it would be harder to recruit folks, because at this point I don't believe it's possible for a Westerner to get a fair trial in the Iraqi court system. I just don't think their judicial system is there yet.
Would you continue to operate in Iraq if there were not immunity?
I'm not going to speculate on something we don't know about.
How many people do you have in Iraq?
About a thousand.
And can you give me the range of their duties?
We provide security for the State Department. That's all. We have no Department of Defense contracts in Iraq at all.
Do you train either military or law enforcement forces from other countries? Or just the United States?
About 10 percent are folks from Africa, South Asia, East Asia, South America, brought in through a State Department program.
And overseas we train the Afghan border police and the Afghan narcotics units. We've been doing the narcotics unit for about three years and we're responsible for the whole thing, the recruiting, vetting, equipping, training. We deploy with them, and that unit has been a great success.
What have we neglected to ask that you would like us to know?
We do a lot more than security. We started off as trainers. We shoot about 1.5 million rounds a month at our facility in North Carolina. The Blackwater facility there is built to accommodate 1,000-plus people and we do it safely and very professionally. We train folks from very, very basic people who have never handled a firearm before, up to very high-end counterterrorism members from around the world. And because of that, we got pulled into the security business because we had the facilities, curriculum, instructors and a pool of people to do that work. We do a lot of aviation support. In Afghanistan last year, we flew 11,000 missions supporting the U.S. Army on the ground. We were hired by the Air Force, and we flew 11,000 missions. We flew 9.5 million pounds of cargo. We did another million pounds by parachute. We moved 40,000 passengers in Afghanistan. We supported 38 combat outposts across 19,000 square miles of area. Our total invoice with eight aircraft – our planes, company-owned planes – pilots, crews, mechanics and parts is less than the Air Force is spending on one C-27. So, people ask why is the private sector doing this? Because we have to find a way to do it better, faster, in a more efficient manner.
Your people flying these missions, or doing the high-level training, they're typically ex-military, right?
Yup. We provide a way for all that prior military talent to be reorganized and packaged and to fill gaps. For guys that were special operators or tactical helicopter pilots or those kind of people, we provide them a job in their military afterlife and fill gaps that the U.S. government can't fill. You know, the U.S. military is the finest in the world at big, conventional operations. But if you're going to stop and turn that big maneuver force into a stabilization force, trying to re-task your air defense artillery men or your chemical warfare specialists to be a precinct cop or a bodyguard, that's tough. And those gaps are created and we fill them.
They can turn on our capability, and they can turn it off, and there's no ongoing costs, no long-term insurance, no long-term retirement, no housing, none of that stuff.
There are suggestions that Blackwater, or other companies, are mercenary armies. You talk about the flying in support of missions. Do your people go into combat as private contractors?
Well, it's not offensive combat, no. But I mean, yeah, do people shoot at us when we're doing a low-altitude resupply drop? Yeah, we get shot at.
And you shoot back?
Nope. Those aircraft are unarmed. There are no weapons on the aircraft.
You talked about deploying with the Afghan drug units. If there's a firefight ... ?
Yeah, then, those guys have defensive rules of engagement. But it's the Afghans' job to do it. Our guys provide them communication support, medical support, intel support and linkages back to the U.S. military with good radios and that kind of connectivity, so that they can all play as one team. One team, one fight. Our guys just facilitate that kind of connectivity.