The Rise and Fall of the Mercenary Formerly Known as Blackwater

Poor Blackwater. They've tried a name change. They've kept a low profile. But still, they can't seem to keep themselves out of trouble.

Just when you think our days of howling over the misdeeds of private mercenary armies are behind us, the New York Times goes and exposes even more of their failings. This time, if you haven't heard, it's because the pre-Panetta CIA had been throwing everybody's favorite secretive military contractor unknown millions of dollars for a program designed to assassinate top Al Qaeda operatives. Seven years and zero dead bin Ladens later, I'd say it's safe to call this one a dud─and that's, seemingly, the conventional wisdom on Blackwater overall. Still, there was once a time when they were the hottest thing in Washington. Just for a quick refresher, here's a short timeline of Blackwater/Xe's rise and fall from grace:

January 1997: Blackwater is founded in North Carolina by former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, who uses inherited money from his father's auto-parts company to convert 6,000 acres of land into a state-of-the-art training ground rented out by local and federal government agencies. Prince's family was the major funder behind the conservative Family Research Council, where he had interned before moving on to a spot in the senior Bush's White House.

February 2000: The company receives its first federal contract, then in October gets another to train sailors for the U.S. Navy. By the following year, they've nabbed more than $700,000 in federal contracts.

September 2002: Blackwater signs a $35.7 million contract with the Pentagon to train more than 10,000 sailors from Virginia, Texas, and California each year in "force protection." With the founding of a security-consulting branch, the company moves into the private-security business.

August 2003: Blackwater is awarded a $21 million no-bid contract to supply security guards and two helicopters for Paul Bremer, the head of the U.S. occupation in Iraq.

March 2004: Four Blackwater employees are ambushed while escorting a convoy in Fallujah and brutally murdered, two of their charred bodies dragged through the streets and strung up on a bridge over the Euphrates. Gory photos circulate, putting private military contracting on the map for the first time.

June 2004: CPA Order 17 grants private contractors immunity from Iraqi law. Three months later, a Blackwater subsidiary is awarded a $34.8 million contract to transport troops and supplies in Afghanistan.

September 2005: After Hurricane Katrina strikes the Gulf Coast, Blackwater sends 150 security personnel down to the region, at first on a volunteer basis, but later adds commercial clients.

January 2007: Two former Blackwater employees, Kenneth Wayne Cashwell and William Ellsworth Grumiaux, plead guilty to possession of stolen firearms shipped in interstate or foreign commerce.

September 2007: Bad news gets worse. A shooting by Blackwater guards in a Baghdad traffic circle leaves 17 civilians dead, prompting federal prosecutors to bring charges against the contractors involved. At the same time, they kick off an investigation into whether Blackwater employees smuggled into Iraq weapons that made their way through the black market and wound up in the hands of U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. A congressional committee slams Blackwater for irresponsibly approaching its security duties in Iraq. Blackwater denies the accusation.

January 2008: Blackwater goes on the attack─in North Carolina. After a Democratic congressional contender criticizes private security firms, he receives a barrage of hate mail from Blackwater employees. As a leaked internal memo describes their mission: "Are you sick and tired of the slanderous bulls--t going on in DC? If so, would you all mind joining me in reminding Mr. Adame that he is running for office in our backyard … Let's run this goof out of Dodge, [N.C.] ...!"

February 2009: Blackwater gets a new name! For reasons unbenownst to anyone outside of Blackwater, it is now called Xe. But the State Department is not impressed, informing Xe that its contract to protect diplomats in war zones, which earned it some $200 million the previous year, would not be renewed.

March 2009: Founder and CEO Erik Prince, 39, steps down.

August 2009: Families of Iraqis killed by Blackwater take the company to court in Virginia. Sworn affadavits from a former employee and a former U.S. Marine allege that Prince may have murdered or faciliated the murder of those cooperating with federal authorities in their investigation. News breaks that the "secret program" Obama's new CIA director had outed and ended in June was actually an effort to contract Blackwater to kill key Al Qaeda leaders. Nonetheless, a full two years after Iraqi officials first insisted Blackwater get out, the company's security forces continue to operate in Iraq.