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.