Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
Blackwater Worldwide Chairman Erik Prince testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Oct. 2, 2007.
Blackwater Worldwide Chairman Erik Prince testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Oct. 2, 2007. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
Melissa Block asks Blackwater CEO Erik Prince about the killing of 17 apparently unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad by Blackwater security guards last month.
With more than $800 million in contracts, Blackwater Worldwide, 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 GOP and conservative Christian groups.
As the Iraqi government presses for Blackwater Worldwide to be expelled from Iraq, the head of the company is offering some defenses that his company may use in any legal action that arises from a Sept. 16 shooting incident in the Iraqi capital.
Iraqi officials say the shooting in a Baghdad traffic circle was unprovoked; they say that Blackwater security contractors guarding a State Department convoy opened fire on civilian cars, leaving 17 unarmed Iraqis dead.
In an interview with NPR's Melissa Block, Blackwater founder and CEO Erik Prince said that he is waiting for the results of an FBI investigation, but he suggested that the company may be prepared to see some members of the team face charges for misconduct.
"If there's individual accountability needed, we support that," Prince said.
Prince says that the FBI investigation may show that not all of those killed in the Sept. 16 incident were unarmed civilians.
"One of the problems is that an armed insurgent, wearing civilian clothes, can appear to be an unarmed civilian when his cohorts 'police up' (carry away) his weapon, if he's shot while our guys are defending themselves," Prince said.
Prince dismissed U.S. military witnesses who said they found no shell casings from guns of the type that militants typically use. "They're certainly entitled to their opinion, but I would defer to the law enforcement experts of the FBI," he said. He suggested that American soldiers who arrived on the scene 25 minutes after the Blackwater convoy left were ill-equipped to investigate and secure a large crime scene.
Prince said that he's been informed that at least one Blackwater vehicle had bullet pocks and a disabled radiator, indicating that it had been fired upon. "I'm very confident that our personnel weren't shooting at each other, so those rounds came from somewhere," he said.
The U.S. military alleges that victims of the Sept.16 shooting apparently tried to leave the scene as they were shot. But Prince says such uncertainties could have been avoided if the State Department had agreed to a Blackwater request, made two years ago, to install cameras in the diplomatic vehicles that Blackwater personnel guard.
Prince said that Blackwater's 1,000-page contract with the State Department prohibits the security company from installing such cameras on its own, but he added that a proposal for installing cameras now is "in the works."
The State Department is supposed to get a review, possibly as early as Friday, about the performance of contractors in Iraq. Prince said that he had heard "very little" from department officials during the investigations of his company.
"That we've heard nothing from them now — I guess I'm disappointed," he said, noting that Blackwater workers have "taken a pounding" in risky missions in Iraq and 27 of them have died.
Prince said his company supports legislation that would require greater accountability on the part of security companies, such as that proposed by Rep. David Price (D-N.C.). His workers, he says, feel the same way.
"They're ex-military and law enforcement people, and they're used to accountability," Prince said.
In the end, Erik Prince stressed that his company was created as a training organization, not a security or protection firm. He said Blackwater got into security at the behest of the government, because it had extensive facilities for training military and law enforcement members, and it could provide trained operatives.
He called it a "thankless job." When reminded that Blackwater has received more than a billion dollars worth of contracts since Sept. 11, Prince replied that it came at "a very significant risk."
"Obviously, you can see the business risk that goes with it — being sued, being maligned in the press, a very significant rush to judgment," he said. "It can jeopardize all the rest of the work that we've done in the rest of the world without any controversy."