Blackwater Founder Defends Firm

Erik Prince made it clear he doesn't like talking to the press. But the Blackwater founder also tells NEWSWEEK's Mark Hosenball he doesn't want "what we do" to be "completely misrepresented." So he spoke—about himself and his controversial company—in an at-times prickly hourlong interview in his offices in northern Virginia. Excerpts:

Hosenball: Rep. [Henry] Waxman has charts claiming that [from '01 to '06, your company got] more than $1 billion in contracts. That correct? [If so], how did you grow so rapidly?
Prince: Our first big growth as a defense contractor started after the bombing of the [USS] Cole, October of 2000. You had two fanatics in a boat packed with explosives that blew up a billion-anda-half-dollar ship while it was refueling.

[You helped train] Navy security to protect the ship?
Yes, sir. Exactly.

Is Waxman's figure correct?
Over that many years, it's possible they could add up to a billion.

Why did you get into [the military-training business]?
I laid it out in a letter home to my wife in 1995, while I was deployed [as a Navy SEAL]. The Special Operations Units had been going to private facilities since the late '70s—individual shooting schools—and no one had done it on a large, industrial scale.

Explain why you don't like the word "mercenary."
It's just not accurate to call us mercenaries because you have Americans working for the American government. That in no way meets the definition of a mercenary. So I think "mercenary" is a slanderous term … kind of an inflammatory word [used] to malign us.

You went to Annapolis.
Did you—I went there for a year and a half.

[Did you leave because] you didn't think the people there were actually serious enough?
I found the Academy to have a lot of extra rules and regulations, and it kind of chafed me. So I left, and I went to school. I was a fireman.

Did you guys find that out?
Yeah, we did.

A great time. I dove for the county sheriff's department doing body recoveries.

To be a SEAL, and to be part of a small unit, it's even more regimented than [what] you had in Annapolis.
The one time I got a safety violation … I didn't have my flare attached to my knife correctly. You have to have the right end down. Why does that matter? Because if it's in the dark and you're in trouble, you need to get that flare off. Those kind of small rules save lives.

[It's been] reported that you're involved with conservative religious groups like the Institute for World Politics, Christian Freedom International.
The Institute of World Politics is a graduate school that teaches Foreign Service officers and military officers. A friend of mine started it. I'm proud to be on that board because they do great work. Christian Freedom International, I don't think I've been to a board meeting in probably a year and a half or two years, and they provide some help to folks that were persecuted in Sudan and Burma and places like that.

The Council for National Policy promotes evangelical candidates.
I went to some of those meetings in high school, in college, with my parents and in the last, let's see, 15 years, I've probably been to one or two of those meetings.

Do you worry about the lack of transparency of your business?
I think we're very transparent. We have been audited many times by the Defense Contract Management Agency … We invite neighbors onto the property. Members of Congress or staff, if they want to come down, we let them. We invite military officers.

On recent allegations and events, Blackwater [has been accused of] a higher civilian casualty rate than other contractors and a higher per-convoy casualty rate.
We operate … in Baghdad, which is where you also find the vast majority of U.S. military casualties, death, attacks. … There's 170-some security companies operating in Iraq. Many [don't have] the screening, vetting, training, oversight requirements we do.

Where do you go from here?
Like any business, we have tried to diversify … We went and hired smart people to [develop products] and innovate, and we have a lighter-than-air persistent-surveillance platform, which is just about done. There's a big rush in UAVs, unmanned air vehicles—but they have wings. This is a helium-filled blimp that will give us two to three days of persistent surveillance.

Up until now, you've had a reputation for secretiveness. If you had your druthers —Secretiveness?
I disagree with that. I speak at educational forums. I have spoken at various conferences. As much as I don't like doing media appearances now, I love Blackwater more, and I love our team, and I want to [be sure not to] let what we do be completely misrepresented as it has been to the media.