hide captionA file photo shows a Blackwater helicopter patrol over Baghdad in 2004. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)
Patrick Baz/Getty Images
A file photo shows a Blackwater helicopter patrol over Baghdad in 2004. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)
Patrick Baz/Getty Images
The first Blackwater employees arrived in New Orleans just 36 hours after the levies broke. At one point, more than 600 Blackwater employees were in the city. Some were guarding the local Sheraton hotel. Others were helping fish people out of the water or were rescuing them off rooftops. Eventually, Blackwater landed a $73 million contact to protect FEMA staff helping with the Katrina recovery operation.
Nelda Davis, who worked in the FEMA center in the New Orleans public library while it was under Blackwater protection, was glad they were there. "I felt secure," she said.
"The guys walked us to our vehicles in the evening and from them in the morning," Davis said, "because not everyone in the disaster area were happy with what some of the agencies were providing — there were some people who were hostile."
More recently, Blackwater has stood accused of killing Iraqi civilians earlier this month during an operation to protect State Department employees. The Iraqi and U.S. governments are trying to figure out a way to investigate the incident — and a way to hold private security contractors in Iraq accountable for their actions. Right now in Iraq, they enjoy immunity from prosecution. That's likely to change.
For all the criticism Blackwater is enduring now, as Davis sees it, the company's employees were a godsend after Katrina. They helped keep tempers calm during a tense situation, she said.
For example, inside the recovery office, employees had a code. If workers felt uncomfortable or didn't feel safe, they were supposed to call out loudly for a "blue form." That was a signal for one of the Blackwater guys to come over and stand close by. Their mere presence did a lot to calm rattled homeowners who were frustrated with the FEMA process. Davis said it let the people coming into FEMA know they needed to keep their voices down.
The company's push to work on natural disasters in this country, however, has made some people edgy. Jeffrey Walker is a former Air Force attorney who is now a fellow at Georgetown University Law School. He raised the alarm about private security contractors like Blackwater more than a decade ago when he was working in the Pentagon. His issue, among others, is the lack of accountability.
"The only difference between Blackwater in Iraq and Blackwater in New Orleans is that they are mercenaries in Iraq and they are vigilantes in New Orleans," Walker said.
"The only accountability these guys have right now is they get their contract cancelled, or if individual Blackwater guys go off the reservation, DOD or State Department has the right in the contract to have Blackwater order individuals home."
It is that lack of oversight and accountability that has Walker and others concerned about Blackwater's intention to take their private security operation domestic. The company has met with leaders in several states to offer their security services in the event of a natural disaster. In California, they have suggested earthquake relief. In New York, they offered help in case of terrorist attack.
Their thinking is simple. The Iraq war won't last forever, so if the company wants to stick around, it needs an alternate business plan. Work here at home is one solution.
"From a capitalist point of view it is brilliant," said Walker. "You want to diversify your market to diversify your downside risk. But do you really want someone diversifying this service? This is hired gun service. And you are going to diversity this among the 51 jurisdictions in the U.S.? This makes me really nervous. This is not a good thing."
Providing security after national emergencies is usually a function of the National Guard and local police. And during the Katrina aftermath, the Blackwater employees were paid $950 a day, or about eight times the salary of a New Orleans police officer.
Nelda Davis said that she was glad they were in New Orleans to help, but that the skills they have developed in Iraq don't necessarily translate to natural disasters. Those situations require more empathy, she said.
"You can't handle those people the same way you handle someone who wants to kill you," she said. "It is just totally different. They need to be a little more selective over who they choose to be in a domestic detail as opposed to international."
FEMA declined to talk about its decision to hire Blackwater for its Katrina staff security. A spokesman would only say that there was indeed a contract.
Similarly, the Sheraton Hotel in New Orleans, which had heralded the arrival of Blackwater in a press release in the days after the hurricane, declined to discuss the company now.
The head of Blackwater's domestic operations, James Flatley, would not be interviewed.
In an e-mail to NPR, he said that there was a media blackout because of the "recent visibility" the company has received — he was referring to the shooting deaths of the Iraqi civilians earlier this month.
With more than $800 million in contracts, Blackwater USA, led by Erik Prince, is among the biggest companies providing armed guards for U.S. officials and government contractors in Iraq.
Prince, the heir to a Michigan auto-parts fortune, has close ties to the Republican Party and conservative Christian groups. He began his career with a stint as an officer in the U.S. Navy SEALs, and co-founded Blackwater in 1997 with other former commandos. His family's wealth made it possible for the then 27-year-old Prince to fund the Blackwater start-up with his own money.
Prince and his firm have drawn scrutiny from members of Congress after Blackwater guards were accused of opening fire on civilians in Baghdad in an incident that left at least nine people dead.
Blackwater has said that its employees were defending a State Department convoy and denied that they had done anything improper, though Prince has made no public statement on the issue. The Iraqi government threatened to expel the company from the country, but after four days, Blackwater was allowed to resume its activities guarding State Department personnel.
Republican, Christian Ties
Prince grew up in Holland, Mich., where his father, Edgar Prince, built Prince Corporation, an auto-parts company that based its success on novel products, such as the lighted vanity mirror for car window visors. The elder Prince was a close friend and supporter of Christian evangelists, such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family, as well as a contributor to the Republican Party. He was an early benefactor of the Family Research Council.
Erik Prince was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, but dropped out after three semesters. He later told the Virginia-Pilot newspaper that he loved the Navy but disliked the academy. He finished his schooling at the Christian-oriented Hillsdale College in Michigan.
Prince later rejoined the Navy through Officer Candidate School and qualified for the SEALs. He served about three years, but left the service early after his father's death in 1995. The family sold the business shortly afterward to Johnson Controls for more than $1.3 billion.
Prince has rarely given interviews to the news media. In an email question-and-answer exchange with the Virginia- Pilot in 2006, he wrote that his Navy experience convinced him of the need for a company that could provide advanced training to military personnel and civilian contractors.
The organization rapidly grew into nine companies, providing everything from bomb-sniffing dogs to drone reconnaissance aircraft. Some of the teams that guard U.S. officials in Iraq are provided by Blackwater Security Consultants, which backs them up with helicopters and specially built military-style armored vehicles. The company's light-weight "Little Bird" helicopters, with gunmen hanging out the side doors, are a familiar icon of Blackwater's presence in Baghdad.
Prince has been a steady contributor to the Republican National Committee, giving more than $200,000 since 1998. He also has supported various conservative candidates, including President Bush, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Rick Santorum (R-PA), Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), and indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX).
Other members of Prince's family have been active in Republican politics. His sister, Betsy DeVos, has served as chair of the Michigan Republican Party, and her husband, Dick DeVos, was an unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor of Michigan in 2006. Dick DeVos, a member of the conservative family that co-founded Amway, succeeded his father as president of that company.
Prince serves as a board member of Christian Freedom International, a nonprofit group that provides Bibles, food and other help to Christians in countries where they face persecution.
Prince's first wife died of cancer in 2003. They had four children together. Prince also has two children with his second wife.