Were Blackwater's 'Civilian Warriors' Unfairly Maligned?
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan put a new focus on the U.S. government's use of military contractors to wage war, especially those that result in protracted occupation and a years-long presence of American boots on the ground. None of these contractors got more negative attention during the course of the wars than Blackwater. The company's founder, Erik Prince, is now speaking out against many of the criticisms. His new book is called "Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror." He joins us from our studios in New York. Mr. Prince, thanks so much for talking with us.
ERIK PRINCE: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: You write at the very beginning of the book - and I'll quote here - "Thanks to endless waves of frivolous lawsuits, congressional hearings and inaccurate press reports, Blackwater was slagged as the face of military evil, gun-toting bullies for hire. We were branded mercenaries and murderers." So my question is, right or wrong, why do you think that perception of Blackwater took hold for so many years?
PRINCE: I think it stems from a - at that point - in probably '06, '07 - you had a war-weary American public. They've been at it five or six years, between Iraq and Afghanistan. In the Vietnam War, the anti-war left went after the troops and in this case, with an all-volunteer military, I think the target became contractors.
MARTIN: The State Department really was - it was your biggest contract. You were working as the primary security force responsible for protecting all the U.S. embassy employees in Iraq. And you say in the book that a lot of the stuff that gave Blackwater a really bad reputation was, specifically, what the State Department had wanted of you. And I'm thinking, in particular, of driving. Blackwater guards got a lot of flak for driving very aggressively; running through intersections, crashing into cars. You say in the book this is all what the State Department wanted?
PRINCE: That kind of State Department work was part of a competitive bid. And if you win, there's a thousand-page contract to perform to with an excruciating level of detail - from grooming standards to the experience of the personnel that you'll send, the training they have to do. They brief the rules of engagement every morning. They tell you where to go, how you will drive. And you're doing, at some point, hundreds of missions a day. But when you're required to drive the congressionally mandated American vehicle - a large SUV, like a big Suburban - with lights and sirens on the same, predictable routes, it's very easy for the enemy to set up on you 'cause they know you're coming. So our people were able to do that mission 100,000 times safely - no one under our care ever killed or injured - while 41 of our men were killed in action supporting that mission.
MARTIN: So just the specifics of driving like that was actually articulated in your contract?
PRINCE: Yes. There's all ranges of tactical things to do. If there's a car that won't get out of the way or you're feeling like you're blocked, you might have to push through that.
MARTIN: In 2007 - this was a seminal event in the war, and for your company - a Blackwater team was protecting a U.S. embassy diplomat. That team shot and killed at least 11 Iraqi civilians. And by your own account, those people were between the ages of 9 and 55 years old. And I'm quoting from your book here, "Some hit in the back as they attempted to flee the scene, presumably mistaken for retreating insurgents." Six of the guards, the Blackwater employees involved that day, were eventually indicted for the role in the killings by the Justice Department. Now, years later, do you still believe those men did nothing wrong?
PRINCE: The men out there that day were all U.S. military veterans. If that unit had been all active-duty service members, I don't believe this would have been an issue. That incident, the team makes the call to leave that area. A support team was called into the traffic circle to smooth their egress; and while they're waiting, a car doesn't heed all the warnings to stop - even warning shots - and then lethal force becomes necessary. And then a firefight ensues. Iraq is a dangerous place. Any civilian loss of life is tragic. But when people make irrational moves and don't heed the warnings of people that are nervous - truly, rightfully so nervous - about a suicide car rolling up on them, tragedies can happen.
MARTIN: Part of the critique against private military contractors like Blackwater has been, they are just not accountable in the same way as the U.S. military. Contractors are not subject to the same rules.
PRINCE: You know, that's been an oft-raised question. But certainly, U.S. law extends to those guys, whether they are working for the U.S. government abroad or domestically.
MARTIN: But the U.S. military is subject to something called the U.S. -
MARTIN: ...the UCMJ.
PRINCE: Uniform Code of Military Justice, right. I think, looking at it now, it'd be easier - and I think there'd be a more valid justice system - to submit contractors to the UCMJ, even if they're State Department contractors. We were supporting of that back then. It's the State Department that prohibited that because they didn't want their State Department employees subject to the UCMJ. I, as a contractor, and in employing thousands of guys, would have been happy to submit to the UCMJ. And - because I think it makes more sense to have a trial that occurs way closer to the edge of battle, and to have a jury of people that understand what that is; whereas if you try to have a jury trial back in the United States, you're going to have a hard time finding a jury that could even identify the country in question on the map.
MARTIN: You are now living in the United Arab Emirates, where you've been helping to build a private army, of sorts, for the government there. You have done this work for so long now, and especially when we think about the work that Blackwater was doing for the CIA - running drone strikes into Pakistan, operating on assassination kill teams for the CIA - what is the value of something like this? Do you see any danger in outsourcing critical functions of the military to a group of private citizens?
PRINCE: From the very beginning of America, you know, as Americans sit down to their Thanksgiving meal next week, they should think about guys like Miles Standish or John Smith, the guys that helped build the original colonies - working for a publicly traded company on the London Stock Exchange. You know, the Jamestown colony was such a company. There has always been a private sector role to support in those kind of activities. And really, I believe the defense budget is so large, the intelligence budget is so large, and it's really become so bloated, that the private sector can actually help by giving a benchmark to measure against, to cut that amount of spending. So I am perfectly happy to have that discussion or debate with somebody on the value and the merits of the private sector innovating and out-maneuvering any government bureaucracy - anytime, anywhere.
MARTIN: Erik Prince - he is the founder and former owner of the private security firm Blackwater. His new book is called "Civilian Warriors." He joined us from our studios in New York. Mr. Prince, thanks so much for talking with us.
PRINCE: You're very welcome.
MARTIN: We reached out the U.S. State Department, to respond to some of the claims Erik Prince made about the specifics of Blackwater's government contract. An official there said that since the shooting at Nisour Square in 2007, the department has worked to update contractor requirements to, quote, "help prevent another tragedy through implementing enhanced training and improved oversight." Specifically addressing the charge that the State Department required Blackwater to drive aggressively to protect its employees, the official said, quote, "motorcade tactics do change according to current threat conditions."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MARTIN: On a Sunday morning, you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.