MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
An Iraqi government spokesman visiting the White House today called the actions by the security contractor Blackwater a crime. He was referring to the killing of 17 apparently unarmed Iraqi civilians by Blackwater security guards last month. The contractors were escorting a State Department official through Baghdad.
The FBI is investigating. Witnesses have said the shooting was unprovoked. And according to news reports, the first U.S. soldiers on the scene found no shell casings from weapons commonly used by insurgents or Iraqi security forces. Their conclusion: There was no enemy activity involved.
Earlier today, I spoke with the founder and chief executive officer of Blackwater Worldwide, Erik Prince. I asked him about those statements from U.S. soldiers.
Mr. ERIK PRINCE (Chief Executive Officer, Blackwater Worldwide): They didn't arrive for almost 25 minutes after the State Department, Blackwater personnel had departed. So they're certainly entitled to their opinion, but I would defer to the law enforcement experts of the FBI, not to the folks who have showed a half hour later, that didn't really secure a terrorist crime scene.
BLOCK: If there were no shell casings that would indicate Iraqi insurgent activity to be found, it would work against the notion that this was a provoked attack, no.
Mr. PRINCE: Well, yeah. But, at least from the reports I've seen as well that the State Department vehicle that our guys are riding in had a number of bullet pockmarks in it. And actually, the radiator was shot out and disabled. So I'm very confident that our personnel were not shooting at each other, so those rounds came from somewhere.
BLOCK: The secretary of state is supposed to be getting a review, possibly as soon as tomorrow, on the performance of contractors. What have you heard from the State Department since the shooting in September about your company and its performance?
Mr. PRINCE: We've heard very little.
BLOCK: Very little.
Mr. PRINCE: Because they, you know, I think they're in the investigation and analysis mode. And I'm sure they'll be communicating with us at the appropriate time.
BLOCK: Hmm. Would you have expected to have heard more expressions of support from them by now?
Mr. PRINCE: Well, I can say that, you know, we've taken - our folks have done a great job over the last - almost three years working for them. More than sixteen and a half thousand personal security missions taking State Department officials, reconstruction personnel, members of Congress, outside the wire and to dangerous places, the most dangerous places in Iraq.
We've had 27 men killed in Iraq. Do we - you know, supporting this mission, we've got three company helicopters shot down and we've taken it pounding. I've gotten lots of thanks from previous ambassadors, from deputy chiefs in mission, from people over - and say thank you. Thank you for having the stomach to say here doing this very, very difficult task - that we've heard nothing from them now. You know, I'm - I guess I'm disappointed.
BLOCK: Mr. Prince, how do you respond to the outrage coming from the Iraqi government since the shooting incident? The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, wants Blackwater to leave Iraq within the six months, maybe even sooner, and had asked that the company pay $8 million to the families of each of those 17 victims.
Mr. PRINCE: Well, I'm not sure how they arrive at those amounts. But I'm - I know the Iraqi government is struggling to define what its sovereignty is. They have plenty of issues from north, south and in between, and that's it's a big challenge they have. So, you know, we're not there to make their life more difficult. We're there to do a job, to help protect the people that are trying to put Iraq back together.
BLOCK: It sounds like the message from the Iraqi government is Blackwater seems to think Iraqi blood is cheap. Do you think that's fair?
Mr. PRINCE: No, that's not - absolutely not the case. Our guys, you know, I have many e-mails from people that we've protected from the State Department that cite times when Blackwater guys will get out in the middle of a very bad traffic jam, trying to get out of a dangerous situation and, you know, expose themselves to potential sniper fire.
You know, last April, the Iraqi parliament was blown up by a suicide bomber, and our guys volunteered. They got permission to go in and assist in the Iraqi parliament. Our guys cleared the building, found a couple of other explosive devices that were wired up, ready to blow in the Iraqi parliament, and provided, you know, lifesaving medical assistance to grievously wounded Iraqis while these explosive devices were present in the building. So the idea that we don't, you know, that the guys don't have high regard for the Iraqis is just not correct.
BLOCK: When you think about the reputation of your company, of Blackwater Worldwide, how damaging do you think this shooting incident in Baghdad has been?
Mr. PRINCE: It certainly caused a lot of unwanted attention. We have great people doing great work in many parts of the world. We didn't get into this, the government contracting business, to be security guys. It was a need that the U.S. government had, that they asked us to bid on and we did. And I think we've done a good job. I mean, no one in our care has been killed or even seriously injured. So it's a difficult job. We've lost good people doing it, our own people. And sometimes it appears to be a thankless job.
BLOCK: It has also been a very lucrative line of work for your company, right? A billion dollars, I believe, in government contract since 9/11.
Mr. PRINCE: Well, it's been a lot of work. And there's a lot of risk that goes with it. Obviously, you can see the business risk that goes with it, being sued, being maligned in the press, a very significant rush of judgment. It, you know, it can jeopardize all the rest of the work that we've done in other parts of the world without any controversy.
BLOCK: Well, Erik Prince, thanks for talking with us today.
Mr. PRINCE: You're very welcome. Thank you.
BLOCK: Erik Prince is founder and CEO of Blackwater Worldwide.