MELISSA BLOCK, host:
For every U.S. soldier serving in Iraq, it's estimated there is about one private contractor. The contractors do everything from feeding the troops to trucking supplies, or as we've heard in this case, serving as the security detail for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Mark Hemingway has written about the rise of private military contractors and about the company Blackwater USA, in particular.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. MARK HEMINGWAY (Writer, National Review Online; Author, "Warriors for Hire: Blackwater USA and the rise of private military contractors"): Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And Mark, you spent time at Blackwater's headquarters in North Carolina - a massive place. Seventy-five hundred acres?
Mr. HEMINGWAY: Yeah. It's about half the size of Manhattan, if you can imagine it.
BLOCK: And it's also the origin of Blackwater's name?
Mr. HEMINGWAY: Yeah. That's - the Blackwater region in North Carolina. Because it's sort of built in a swamp down there, where if you dig down a foot or two in the ground, you get a very thick peat water that's black.
BLOCK: When they're recruiting, where are they drawing people from? Are these retired special ops people?
Mr. HEMINGWAY: Yes. A lot of them are retired special ops people or even not so retired special ops people. The money is so good in private contracting that a lot in the Special Forces community have been quitting to join up, because the pay is considerably more.
BLOCK: And no problem finding enough people to fill these roles?
Mr. HEMINGWAY: Not initially, because the money was so good. But the problem is that Blackwater was one of the original large private security firms involved in this work. Since then, you know - and Eric Prince complained about this himself - that the money is so good for private contracting work that they find themselves competing with what Prince calls two guys and a laptop companies where you have, you know, maybe two ex-Special Forces guys that are bidding on contracts and then staffing up after they get the contract.
BLOCK: You mentioned Eric Prince. Eric Prince is the founder of Blackwater.
Mr. HEMINGWAY: Yeah.
BLOCK: Tell us more about him.
Mr. HEMINGWAY: He is an interesting guy. He's a former Navy Seal himself, so certainly, he's a real deal, and he certainly knows what he's talking about. But he's also the inheritor of a billion-dollar auto parts fortune along with his sisters, so he's in a very unique place to be running a private security firm, in the sense that he's exceedingly wealthy and has a Special Forces military background.
BLOCK: Eric Prince's family also has long and deep Republican connections.
Mr. HEMINGWAY: Yeah. His father, obviously, was very wealthy. And he donated a lot of money to various Republican causes. And he was one of the people that helped James Dobson found Focus on the Family.
BLOCK: Blackwater does not like the word mercenary to be attached to the kind of work it does. But what's the distinction? I mean, isn't that an awfully blurry line?
Mr. HEMINGWAY: It is an awfully blurry line. But Blackwater says that they won't do anything that they don't get assurances that is in the interests of the United States. I mean, I guess that's the distinction they did draw. I mean, they're not willing to take anybody's money.
BLOCK: People will remember Blackwater's name in connection with the incident in Fallujah in 2004 where four contractors were brutally killed. And the families of those four contractors who were killed have filed wrongful death lawsuits. What's the basis of those lawsuits?
Mr. HEMINGWAY: The family is saying that, at least in that particular mission, that the contractors were very ill-prepared and shouldn't have been sent out on that mission. In fact, I believe one of the guys involved, before he went out, vocally expressed his misgivings about the nature of the mission he was sent out on and made it clear in no uncertain terms that he thought it was a bad idea. And he did it anyway. You know, the waiver these guys, you know, signed to do this kind of work, and it's got to be thicker than a telephone book. I mean, you know, they know what they're getting into.
BLOCK: And where does Blackwater see its growth potential as it looks forward?
Mr. HEMINGWAY: They have been pushing, recently, to trying to get into humanitarian aid in the world's most dangerous places. It's very hard to get aid into places without some sort of security and some sort of law and order. So there's definitely big market there, considering the amount of money that the U.N. spends. On the other hand, you know, the NGO community has been very skeptical of this, and for very good reasons, particularly in places like Africa where you do have a legacy of mercenary work that has not been good in the slightest, you know, people, you know, working directly for a corporate interest. And they've always, you know, mercenaries have always hidden behind that fact that they have been, you know, doing some sort of humanitarian aid along the way, even when they have been doing things of other questionable nature.
BLOCK: Mark Hemingway, thanks very much.
Mr. HEMINGWAY: Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: That's Mark Hemingway. He's a writer for National Review Online. His story about Blackwater USA appeared last December in The Weekly Standard.
This is NPR, National Public Radio.