Erik Prince likes to point out that in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, stand the statues of four military officers who helped whip the ragtag Continental Army into shape to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War. Prince can quote the inscription under the statue of Gen. Wilhelm von Steuben, who trained George Washington's troops at Valley Forge, Pa.: "He gave military training and discipline to the citizen soldiers who achieved the independence of the United States." The private soldiers employed by Prince's company, Blackwater USA, to protect American officials in Iraq are in a "noble tradition," Prince tells NEWSWEEK. Indeed, at Blackwater, Lafayette Park is jokingly called "Contractor Park."
But don't call the Blackwater men "mercenaries." That's a "slanderous term" used by Blackwater's detractors, "an inflammatory word they use to malign us," says Prince. Mercenaries, he says, are professional soldiers who work for a foreign government. Blackwater's men are "Americans working for the American government." (Never mind that von Steuben was Prussian, and that the other three statues—of the Marquis de Lafayette, Comte de Rochambeau and Thaddeus Kosciuszko—honor two Frenchmen and a Pole.) If Prince seems a little defensive, it is not hard to understand why. Described in the press as "secretive," in part because he has in the past put his hands over his face around photographers, Prince has been in focus lately. A month ago, Blackwater guards protecting an American diplomat killed 17 apparently unarmed Iraqis in a chaotic scene in a Baghdad square. (After the incident, the company said it had "acted lawfully and appropriately in response to a hostile attack.") A recent book, "Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army," by Jeremy Scahill, strongly suggests that Prince is a "neo- crusader," a "Theocon" with a Christian-supremacist agenda.
It is true that the Blackwater Web site has a "Chaplain Corner" with a distinctly evangelical message. In the past 15 years, Prince says, he has attended "one or two" meetings of the Council for National Policy, a Christian right organization founded by the Rev. Tim LaHaye, author of the "Left Behind" series. But Prince plays down any connection between his religion and his business. "Look," he says, "I'm a practicing Roman Catholic, but you don't have to be Catholic, you don't have to be a Christian to work for Blackwater." A more telling criticism of the company may come from the State Department officials whom Blackwater protects. Certainly, they are grateful to be guarded by former Navy SEALs and other Special Forces veterans, rather than green, young National Guardsmen. Blackwater likes to boast, accurately, that it has never lost a client. Still, some American diplomats—and not a few professional soldiers in the U.S. military—look askance at the heavy-handed swagger of the Blackwater guards, who often sport goatees and tattoos, wear wraparound shades, brandish their weapons and have been known to run anyone off the road who gets in their way. One State Department official, who spoke anonymously so as not to offend any guardians, tells NEWSWEEK, "It was one step forward in a meeting with Iraqis and two steps back as cars were getting bumped off the road on the ride home."
In his NEWSWEEK interview, Prince, 38, wanted to rebut the suggestion that he is building a private army that is beyond the control of the American government and answerable only to him. He argues that his thousand-odd men in Iraq are not trigger-happy, and blames trial lawyers and congressional staffers for hyping false stories. But his own story suggests a restless search for higher forces and powers, for a kind of martial and religious purity that is not sullied or bogged down by bureaucrats and nosy reporters. In his occasional public utterances at security conferences, his vision emerges. He was once quoted by a defense-industry newsletter describing why his private contractors could provide better—more effective, more efficient—"relief with teeth" in a dangerous environment than international aid organizations or even the U.S. military: "Everybody carries guns, just like Jeremiah rebuilding the Temple in Israel, a sword in one hand, a trowel in the other." Prince, a weapons expert and adventure seeker since he outgrew playing with lead soldiers as a boy, has seen the promised land, and it is righteous and well armed.
Prince's father set a standard that was impossible to live up to. (Prince tells NEWSWEEK he is "not as smart as my dad was.") A self-made billionaire (he invented an illuminated mirror widely used in cars), Edgar Prince spearheaded efforts to save his hometown of Holland, Mich., from the scourge of modernism. While other fading Michigan auto towns were being hollowed out by strip malls and Wal-Mart, Prince Senior restored Holland's downtown to its Victorian charm. Today, seven bronze footsteps cast from Ed Prince's shoes lead to a statue of children singing while nearby bronze musicians play instruments. WE WILL ALWAYS HEAR YOUR FOOTSTEPS, reads the engraved memorial to the patriarchal Prince. (Other bronze statues show children pledging allegiance to the flag and Ben Franklin reading the Constitution.) Edgar was befriended by Christian leaders Gary Bauer and James Dobson and partially financed the Family Research Council, which both men helped lead. When Prince died in 1995, Bauer wrote, "Ed Prince was not an empire builder. He was a Kingdom Builder."
Hard work, family and God were the elder Prince's core beliefs. Old friends whom NEWSWEEK interviewed described Erik as dutiful and intense, but with a taste for practical jokes and danger. Obtaining a pilot's license before a driver's license, Prince wanted to fly Navy jets. He went from Holland Christian High School to the U.S. Naval Academy but transferred to Hillsdale College, an institution with an almost Ayn Rand-like faith in free markets, in the middle of his second year at Annapolis. Prince says he chafed at the Naval Academy's petty rules for new midshipmen, like chewing no more than three times before swallowing when questioned by an upperclassman at mealtime. Prince's former history professor from Hillsdale, John Willson, tells NEWSWEEK Prince found the Naval Academy to be insufficiently tough and conservative. (Prince denies saying this.)
The Prince family gave heavily to GOP candidates. Erik donated his first $15,000 to the Republican Party when he was 19. (Though Prince has since given more than $250,000 to GOP candidates, he denies the money had any influence on Blackwater's obtaining government contracts.) In 1990 he got a six-month internship in George H.W. Bush's White House. Prince says the experience was an "eye opener," but declined to elaborate. At the time, he told the Grand Rapids Press, "I saw a lot of things I didn't agree with— homosexual groups being invited in, the budget agreement [which raised taxes], the Clean Air Act [which was expensive for business] …" Back at Hillsdale, Prince was a volunteer firefighter who liked to dive into the icy waters of inland lakes looking for cars or snowmobiles that had fallen through the ice. In 1992, he joined the Navy SEALs.
There can be few more-grueling experiences, but Prince apparently thrived. Jack Lynch, president of a national SEALs association, says, "He was a good operator. Guys liked going in the water with him." Deployed to Haiti, Bosnia and the Middle East, Prince saw no actual combat, though, he says, "I've certainly been mortared and rocketed a few times" in war zones since then. Prince left the SEALs in 1996 after his father died and Prince needed to figure out what to do with the family company. (The family sold it for more than $1 billion.) Prince received a double shock when his wife, Joan, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was pregnant with their second child.
One of Joan's close friends, who declined to be identified discussing private matters, tells NEWSWEEK a doctor recommended Joan terminate the pregnancy before the cancer could be fed by the further rush of estrogen. Joan, a devout Catholic, had the baby—and then had two more. She died of cancer in 2003. Prince, who remarried in 2004, converted to Roman Catholicism at Easter time in 1992. His family had been members of the Calvinist Dutch Reform Church, though with an evangelical bent. No one seems to have been shocked or upset by Prince's embrace of Rome. Several knowledgeable friends, who did not wish to be identified discussing private conversations, say Prince talked about his reverence for the continuity of the Catholic Church, his desire to go to mass every morning and his appreciation of confession.
With a portion of his inherited wealth, Prince bought some 6,000 acres of land in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina to create a state-of-the-art private training ground for shooters and security operators. Located near SEAL and Delta Force bases, the Blackwater (named after the swamp's peat-colored bogs) facilities are rented out to federal and local government agencies training soldiers and SWAT teams. (One testing ground: a mocked up "RU Ready High School" to simulate school shootings, complete with taped screams.) Business boomed after 9/11. "The phone is ringing off the hook," Prince told Fox News host Bill O'Reilly two weeks after the Qaeda attacks. Prince himself went to Afghanistan with Blackwater operators on a security contract with the CIA. According to some accounts, he sought to join the agency but stumbled during a polygraph test. "All I can tell you is I have a very high security clearance," Prince says. But did he want to join the CIA? "I think everybody wanted to help the U.S. government in some way after 9/11," says Prince. (A CIA spokesman would not comment.)
Prince has added some colorful characters to his executive suite. He hired Cofer Black, a former counterterror chief at the CIA (who promised to run down Qaeda leaders until there were "flies on their eyeballs"), and Joseph Schmitz, a former Pentagon inspector general who was so impressed with von Steuben's legacy that he put the Prussian general's family motto ("Always Under the Protection of the Almighty") on the IG's official seal. Since 9/11, Blackwater has reportedly scored $1 billion in government contracts (the figures are exaggerated, says Prince, though he acknowledges that the total "could add up" to a billion). He says Blackwater is thoroughly audited and that it does nothing without government authorization. Though diplomats complain about the cowboy tactics of Blackwater guards, it should be noted that Blackwater is only carrying out State Department orders to keep the roads clear for diplomats on the move.
Prince says his company is being hounded by "trial lawyers" working in cahoots with Democratic congressional staffers. In 2004, four Blackwater contractors were killed, and two were dismembered and burned, in Fallujah, Iraq. When evidence surfaced that their mission (prosaically, to pick up and deliver kitchen equipment) was underarmed and probably ill conceived, the families of the dead soldiers sued Blackwater. After the Fallujah slaughter, Prince reached out to some family members ("He's not a monster," one tells NEWSWEEK), but then Blackwater turned icily unresponsive. Prince has hired some heavy-duty defense lawyers, including former independent counsel Ken Starr, and countersued the families for $10 million.
Prince now plays down some of his earlier rhetoric about creating a private battalion that could be dropped into a trouble spot anywhere around the world (he has mentioned Darfur in the past). His focus seems to be more on developing the latest high-tech gadgetry to sell to the govern-ment. Blackwater has a prototype of a spy blimp—an unmanned dirigible that could hover for days. Though he despises doing media interviews, Prince felt his company had been so maligned he was compelled to speak out. The interview with NEWSWEEK OVER, the reporter was ushered out, past a large portrait of George Washington, on his knees in the snow beside a white horse, praying. Fox News played on the TV screen. On the door of the suite of the offices in the faceless building in the corporate sprawl of northern Virginia, there is no name.