As he pitched his plan last week to fight Ebola with private contractors, Blackwater founder Erik Prince spoke alternately in hypotheticals and nostalgic past tense. Prince thinks that with a large supply vessel off the coast of Ebola-ravaged West Africa, private contractors like the ones formerly employed by Blackwater could quickly deliver crucial medical assistance where it’s needed — an old idea of his in a new context.
“We could carry 250 vehicles, couple of helicopters, couple of landing craft, and everything else — so that’s all your mobility equipment,” he told Foreign Policy on Thursday. “Everything else was containerized: food, medicine, field hospitals, tents, water purification, generators, fuel — everything you’d need for a humanitarian disaster.”
Prince, a 45-year-old former Navy SEAL, auto-parts company heir, and billionaire, has become the public and much maligned face of private military contractor use in America’s war on terror. So it’s perhaps not surprising that Prince advocates private contractors as part of a solution to not only countering the Ebola outbreak in West Africa but also combating Islamic State militants in Iraq.
“One of the real core competencies of Blackwater, or companies like Blackwater, is we can operate in difficult places without any outside support,” Prince said, arguing that private firms are best-positioned to train and equip fighters such as the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. “The thing about the private sector is it can start with a clean sheet of paper every time, and it doesn’t necessarily have to adapt an expensive, existing set of tools that it kind of has to bring along with it.”
That idea isn’t unique. What’s more noteworthy is Prince’s unchanged attitude about the inevitable superiority of private contracting companies. The day before Prince spoke to Foreign Policy by phone, a U.S. jury convicted four former Blackwater guards of killing 14 Iraqi civilians and injuring another 17 when they opened fire in downtown Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. Prince himself has managed to avoid serious legal consequences from the misdeeds of his company, which made more than $1 billion from contracts in Iraq alone.
The bloody Nisour Square incident soured relations between the United States and Iraq and permanently blackened the public image of a company already tainted by complaints of impunity for violent behavior. Journalist Jeremy Scahill reported in 2009 that in sworn statements given to authorities investigating the company, a former Blackwater employee claimed Prince “views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,” and that his business “encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.”
In his book Civilian Warriors, as well as in a relatively rare interview ahead of its paperback release Tuesday, Prince vehemently rejected such claims and argued that Blackwater was scapegoated by vindictive Democrats and a State Department and Pentagon that couldn’t come to terms with the government’s growing dependence on private contractors. “I’m no hero. The world knows all too well about my mistakes. But I was never meant to play the villain,” he wrote in his book. “Seeing the company I’d built torn down for no reason was almost too much to bear.”
But the independence that Prince now touts as private contractors’ primary advantage in fighting scourges such as Ebola and the Islamic State is arguably what got Blackwater in trouble in the first place.
As the defense analyst Peter W. Singer has noted, Blackwater was very good at protecting people, but its single-minded focus on security to the detriment of winning “hearts and minds” undermined the credibility of the broader U.S. operation in Iraq, as seen in the fallout over Blackwater’s 2007 Baghdad shootings. “If they push traffic off the roads or if they shoot up a car that looks suspicious, whatever it may be, they may be operating within their contract — to the detriment of the mission, which is to bring the people over to your side,” the counter-insurgency expert Army Col. Peter Mansoor said in 2007.
Prince acknowledges in his book that Blackwater’s “approach earned us no friends among Iraqi civilians, or the emergent government agencies representing them.” And indeed, he struggled to free Blackwater from its own track record, which includes charges of arms smuggling as well as unwarranted violence. He changed the firm’s name to Xe in 2009 and sold it in 2010 to a group of shareholders, who have since reconstituted the company as Academi and tried to distance it from Prince.
The writer Robert Young Pelton, who helped Prince develop and pitch his book and is currently embroiled in a legal battle with him over the contract, thinks Prince’s current PR push is “really about legacy.”
“Prince’s greatest dilemma is as Libertarian he has made most of his money from working for the government,” Pelton said via email. “He wants people after the Dems are out of office to believe he was pilloried by politics.”
Prince’s proposal for an anti-Ebola ship also appears to be a reimagining of his past in which his problems disappear. In 2006, Blackwater bought a 183-foot U.S. ocean survey vessel, the McArthur, for a broad range of provisioning, humanitarian, and security uses. It turned out the ship was too slow for many missions, and after allegations of crewmate abuse and a dearth of commissions, the company put the vessel up for sale in 2010.
Advocating for his Ebola-fighting idea, however, Prince told Foreign Policy the costs would be low because “we were going to use a kind of mid- to later-life vessel, and we didn’t have to sail around the world efficiently anymore. It just had to float, move at 23 knots when we wanted it to go.” Such a ship would address challenges NGOs face in quickly moving supplies to respond to crises, he said, helping out wherever “the balloon goes up — whether it’s a typhoon that hits the Philippines or a tsunami that hits Japan or an earthquake that hits Pakistan, or Ebola that hits West Africa.”
Though pitching himself as a humanitarian, Prince remains cagey about his more recent activities. While the hardcover’s book jacket says he splits his time between Abu Dhabi and Virginia, Prince said on Thursday that, “unfortunately, I kind of split between Virginia and living in an airplane. I travel a lot.” He currently heads Frontier Services Group, a Chinese-backed firm that provides logistics assistance in Africa.
Regarding claims that he assisted in standing up groups of mercenaries to fight Somali pirates and enemies of the United Arab Emirates’ government, Prince responded, “My role, since I sold the business, Blackwater — it’s been limited to some strategic ideas.”
Despite reports that trainees for the anti-pirate “police force” had been abandoned by their backers in 2012, Prince insisted that the effort had actually succeeded in eliminating piracy. “There was no successful pirate attacks in 2013, and I don’t believe this year either,” Prince said. “Something worked, so I don’t know how the media missed that.”
For Pelton, Prince remains “an interesting guy that gets away with murder…literally,” and “is somewhat immune from self-examination and truth.”
Asked about his involvement in the UAE project, Prince signaled that the interview was at an end. “I’ve said everything I’m going to say on piracy, and the UAE, and all the rest,” he said.
Prince did respond to a final question about his relationship with religion as a professedly devout Roman Catholic.
“I think faith gives us a structure around which to try to organize our lives,” he said. “I’m also a big believer, and very thankful that there’s forgiveness.”