|Blackwater Founder 'Regrets' Working for US State Dept.|
|By JAMES HILL (@jameshillABC) and ELY BROWN||Nov 18, 2013, 7:42 PM|
Erik Prince, the founder of the private security firm, Blackwater Inc., is either a great American patriot, used and then dumped by the United States government, or one of the biggest war profiteers in the history of armed conflict, depending on how you see it.
Today, Prince said he wants to set the record straight about him and Blackwater, the controversial private army he built into a global juggernaut.
"There became such a ... cyclone of nonsense that would feed off itself, and it built us into a 10-foot-tall boogeyman, which just wasn't the case," he said.
Prince, 44, sat down for an interview with ABC News' Martha Raddatz for "Nightline" at his Virginia estate to talk about his new book, "Civilian Warriors," what happened when Blackwater contractors were in Iraq and Afghanistan, his company's involvement with the CIA and how he "seriously regrets" working for the U.S. State Department.
"I don't want to sound like I'm complaining, because whatever nonsense I've had to put up with, there's a lot of guys and girls that paid a far higher price, that lost their life, that lost limbs, eyes, marriages, whatever, serving their country," he said. "It was professionally satisfying and also tragic."
The name Blackwater is most associated with the four Blackwater contractors who were killed in Iraq in 2004, their bodies burned and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. Three years later, members of Congress brought forth accusations of Blackwater guards indiscriminately shooting, leading to the deaths of civilians. Then Prince himself was called before Congress for a lashing.
To this day, he does not apologize for anything that happened.
"Some people will always hate the name Blackwater," he said. "They might not like me. It's probably around 40 percent of America. I am perfectly comfortable with that."
In his new book, Prince takes aim at his critics, the "cold and timid souls" he blames for the downfall of the company.
"It was really hard seeing it dismembered by the bureaucracy and all the attacks," he said.
Prince grew up in a wealthy and conservative Michigan family. His father was an immensely successful automotive entrepreneur. After a stint in the Navy SEALS, Prince decided in the late '90s to use his inherited fortune to build a private training facility for military and law enforcement in the swamps of North Carolina.
"I didn't need the job but I liked the job," he said. "I loved being a SEAL. I loved working with those kind of guys and a sense of mission, and Blackwater was started to continue that sense of mission."
Then came the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and then the terror attacks of 9/11, and Blackwater rapidly grew into a vital security and support contractor for the Pentagon, the U.S. State Department and the CIA.
"There was all kinds of things the company did, and there was things that I did personally," Prince said.
It was reported that teams of special operatives were trained on Prince's Virginia estate for CIA-led assassination squads that would hunt down suspected terrorists, wherever they might be found.
When asked if training took place on his Virginia estate, Prince said, "I would say I put all of my resources at the disposal of the U.S. government, including personal resources, even homes and farms or whatever else."
After the U.S. military ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan, and then Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, Blackwater contractors would become, in Prince's words, "the ultimate tool in the war on terror." Blackwater sent over a thousand contractors to the region to address the acute security needs in the lawless aftermath of war.
"The guys protected all the State Department people, members of Congress, even Senator Obama when he was visiting there," he said. "Every diplomat, bureaucrat and member of Congress that visited Iraq came home alive under our guys' care."
But it all came spiraling down in a hail storm of negative attention, starting with Blackwater's aggressive protection tactics in the streets of Iraq. Prince said his contractors were just following the rules dictated to them by the State Department, which he said stipulated that his guys had to drive "washed and waxed Chevy Suburbans between point A and point B every day with lights and sirens on."
"When the enemy is coming at you, and all you can do is drive aggressively, to move your ... person in your care from point A to point B, those are the only tactics you have left," he said.
"We would prefer to run it the way we wanted to run it, which would be to run very low-profile missions and running in nonstandard-type vehicles," Prince continued. "When the company itself would do a mission for an NGO or another customer in Iraq, and we got to pick the method of how that mission was done, we'd use a beat-up old taxi, or an armored vehicle that was looking very dilapidated."
When asked why he didn't push back when Blackwater signed the contract with the State Department if his company had these concerns, Prince said, "We tried."
"We're at the end of that tail getting whipped," he said. "My greatest regret is going to work for the State Department. ... If I sound unapologetic, I guess I am."
A State Department official told ABC News today that its agreement with Blackwater "required the use of U.S. government-furnished vehicles," but that the use of sirens was "not a contractual requirement."
The beginning of the end for Blackwater in Iraq was in September 2007, when several of its contractors were accused of firing into a crowd of civilians in Baghdad's Nisour Square after a car bomb exploded a mile away. At least 11 people, including a 9-year-old boy, died.
"It's possible at Nisour Square there were civilians that were killed," Prince said.
A handful of Blackwater contractors were charged with manslaughter. One pleaded guilty. The others are contesting the charges.
In court papers, the government has alleged the guards "opened fire with automatic weapons and grenade launchers on unarmed civilians" and that many victims were shot "while inside of civilian vehicles ... attempting to flee."
But Prince said he feels the accusations are part of a "highly political prosecution."
"If the amount of scrutiny paid to that event was paid to every other shooting of any U.S. forces or any other contractor forces it would tie up the Justice Department for the next decade," he said.
It was this incident that eventually led to Blackwater's expulsion from Iraq in 2009. But Prince now says that long before the company's reputation began to unravel, and for years after that, Blackwater took on an even larger but less conspicuous role in the global war on terror with the CIA, although he is guarded about discussing details.
"I'd say that 55 pages of my original book was schwacked by the agency," he said.
Blackwater teams were said to be deeply involved in covert activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan until 2009, including the highly controversial use of unmanned aircraft to go after suspected terrorists.
When asked if Blackwater was involved in a drone program, Prince said, "I won't dispute that."
Prince claims that after the CIA cut ties with Blackwater, the CIA director at the time, Leon Panetta, "outed" Prince and Blackwater's secret role to a congressional committee during a closed-door hearing, and it soon leaked to the press.
"When you sign up ... as an asset to serve your country when you are asked to help and then to be outed by name to a very leaky Congress, that's unprecedented," he said.
A representative for Panetta told ABC News that the former CIA director was required to brief Congress on covert programs, and that he had no control over what happened to the information after that.
The CIA declined to comment on its association with Prince.
Prince said he is done doing business with the U.S. government. He is now living part-time in Abu Dhabi and focusing on mining and energy investments in Africa.
"Act 2 should be interesting," he said. "I'm working on it. You have not heard the last of me, I will say that."