Paul Tullis, Words

 


despite the byline, I wrote about 2/3 of this, and did nearly all the secondary reporting.

INSIDE BLACKWATER

by Robert Young Pelton

Men's Journal Dec. 2007


Between runs to the airport the blackwater team and I kill time shooting the shit. Shooting is what Blackwater is all about, whether at the company’s 7,500-acre training facility in North Carolina or out here driving the world’s most dangerous 10-minute commute: the Green Zone to Baghdad International Airport. This is late 2004, and Blackwater USA’s founder, owner, and CEO, Erik Prince, has granted my request to embed with one of his security teams in Baghdad.


Lounging on the fenders of the armored Mamba vehicles, we do the thumbs-up suspender thing, lifting our heavy armor and the 16 magazines of 5.56 ammo for our M4s. The mostly ex-SEAL teams guarding the U.S. Department of State personnel and facilities here in Baghdad are dressed to kill. Like the SEALs, famous for arming a single squad with enough firepower for an entire platoon, the Mamba team, they say, rolls hard and carries “a lot of spank.” The 12 men in three Mambas pack more than 12,000 rounds of ammo among us; some of the guys carry grenades, extra clips for their Glocks, and BFKs (big fucking knives). Even the machine gunners carry assault rifles, pistols, and a few grenades. And, as congressional reports released this fall revealed, Blackwater contractors squeeze off a fair share of those rounds. There were nearly 200 shooting incidents involving the company’s contractors since 2005, and in more than 80 percent of them Blackwater fired first. Nobody knows how many Iraqis have been killed by private security contractors (PSCs) since the invasion in 2003, but the number is believed to be in the dozens, if not the hundreds.


The look of the Mamba Quick Reaction Force Team is the one cultivated by CIA paramilitaries, but this force is all civilian. Everyone is here for the $550 a day he’s collecting, except for me. I am known as the “bullet bitch” of the group, required as a condition of my tagging along to carry an M4 and several clips on my chest so that when we get attacked they can tear the ammo and extra weapon off my dead body. Even in person the team goes by its radio handles: Miyagi, Griz, T-Boy, Critter, Baghdaddy. My call sign is Daily Planet.


We’re soaking up the sun on a typically clear, crisp winter day in Baghdad, listening with one ear for calls for help on the crackling radio while we talk about whether it’s better to shave your head or wax it, which tattoos score the most pussy, and how much military gear one human can wear without falling over. The group of sturdy men, stacks of weapons, bowlegged stances, and regular streams of brown spit might call to mind bored gunfighters waiting for a showdown. Which is exactly what they are.


Though we spend most of our time running Route Irish to the airport and back — a sicko’s thrill ride costing $13,000 a run, with car bombs, snipers, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and ambushes along the way — Mamba acts as backup for other Blackwater teams, known as “Pretty Boys,” working for the State Department. They are unlike the rough-and-ready Mamba crew in appearance: Think Rambo meets Brad Pitt, long hair, thin sideburns, slouching gunfighter lean, sunburned squint behind wraparound shades.


One of these Pretty Boy teams drives up, AC/DC blasting from what they call their “hate truck.” They brush the dust from their clothes and greet us. One ex-marine spits and complains in a mocking falsetto, “Oh, fuck! We gotta roll with the Mamba team. Now we all gonna die!” The Pretty Boys are, in fact, the only guys who dare roll with the Mamba team.


They show me their gear, including plenty of water bottles for throwing at people who get too close. If on-comers don’t back off, there’s a shotgun for real close action and a SAW — squad automatic weapon — for payback. An hour after saying their goodbyes, the Pretty Boys will be attacked on the road and kill two insurgents. One of them tells me later he wishes he could have stayed to “finish the job”; insurgents had returned to the scene and booby-trapped their comrades’ corpses, killing two marines. Two months after I leave them the Mamba team will be blown up, resulting in three casualties. This, as they say, is serious shit. I n the aftermath of the september 16 massacre, in which its contractors killed more than a Iraqis, Blackwater has become a lightning rod for everyone with a bone to pick about the war in Iraq: Americans sick of a war that’s dragged on for years longer than they were led to believe it would; litigators eager to win millions for the families of men who died in the employ of the company; activists seeking a new enemy on which to hang the mantle of President Bush’s failure in Iraq; congresspeople criticizing the outsourcing of military functions to private companies; and Iraqis fed up with the in-your-face stance of (PSCs) in their country. There are two other prominent PSC players in Iraq — DynCorp International and Aegis — but Blackwater is the most notorious. It’s the Frankenstein’s monster of the transformative American misadventure in Iraq, which is the result of an aggressive, forward-leaning foreign policy position that started with “shock and awe,” escalated with the American edict immunizing the company from Iraqi law, and continues with President Bush’s troop “surge” of 2007. At a time when some residents say Baghdad is the quietest it’s been in years, and signs of native Sunnis turning against foreign Islamic terrorists are becoming apparent, the actions of unregulated contractors threaten to undo the sacrifices of thousands of lives.


In his testimony before Congress on October 2, Blackwater CEO Erik Prince insisted that as far as he knew, his employees “acted appropriately” on September 16. Every day in between, though, brought further evidence that cast additional doubt on his assertion. The death toll had risen from eight to 11 to 17 and included, according to the New York Times, at least one victim who was shot in the back as he attempted to flee. Since Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer exempted PSCs from Iraqi law the day before he left office in 2004, Blackwater contractors and the rest have acted with practical impunity. None have been prosecuted by a U.S. or Iraqi court, nor have they been subjected to the justice of the U.S. military. (However, Blackwater provided Congress with legal opinions stating that they could be; a similar opinion was provided to Men’s Journal in a memo from Cherif Bassiouni, a respected international law professor.) Building on my prior reporting from Baghdad, interviews with current and former Blackwater executives (including Prince), visits to the company’s headquarters in Moyock, North Carolina, and a close analysis of Jeremy Scahill’s best-selling exposé–conspiracy theory Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, this Men’s Journal investigation has turned up evidence that the company may be a victim of circumstance. If so, however, it’s largely a circumstance of the company’s own devising. Working with single-minded diligence since its founding a decade ago, Blackwater, Prince, and the principals he’s hired have sparked a bonfire that’s now burning out of anyone’s control. It remains to be seen whether all those critics will be pouring water on that fire or fueling it further. In any case, the events of September 16 will pressure Blackwater and its owner to be unerring in an impossible-to-control environment.


“A lot of these guys are just running all over the battlefield,” says Paul Rieckhoff, a former U.S. infantry platoon leader, who founded the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). “Nobody knows who they are, and nobody knows who they answer to.”  E rik prince comes bounding out of the elevator of the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, Virginia,and walks toward me. He is medium height, fit, German/Nordic-looking with a precise blond haircut and a relaxed, easy charm. He gives me a big smile.


“You are the only person [in the media] I talk to,” he says. “And that is because I like you.” (Later he tells me, with the churlishness of a talk-radio blowhard, “Frontline and ABC — they are hatchet jobs bought and paid for by trial lawyers.”)When we met, September 16 hadn’t happened yet, but during our interview I was struck by the contrast of our surroundings — posh upholstery and crystal glassware — contrasting sharply with the cordite and car bombs and naked fear that Prince’s contractors experience as they move about Baghdad, and the blowback from their presence there. Today he’s excited to tell me about some of the technology Blackwater is developing, such as a blimp “designed for a Rwanda-like problem.” With the eagerness of a 14-year-old showing off his Xbox, he walks me through the 35-slide PowerPoint presentation he makes at the Pentagon, the CIA, and on Capitol Hill. Guns, trucks, airplanes, and mercenaries seem to be his toys of choice.I search for any sign of conflict behind his smile, some awareness of the irony that the employees of this man who sells “security” are laying down death and destruction 7,000 miles away. Prince describes Blackwater’s fleet of modified aircraft, from Boeing MD 530E Little Birds, which can fly at rooftop level in complete darkness, to a custom CASA 212, a twin-engine fixed-wing craft used for parachute jumps and cargo drops. He’s apparently proud of these gunships-for-hire, which he says can replace the military’s. His CASA 212 needs only a crew of four — compared to the army’s similar, 13-person AC130U — and, as Prince puts it, “any weapon activity handled by a ride-along host nation.”


Killing people on budget, for profit, doesn’t seem like a nice business to be in, especially for a devout Roman Catholic and father of six. (One of Prince’s sons is named after William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the founder of the OSS, predecessor to the CIA.) Phone calls from his wife form odd interruptions to our conversations about war.Prince himself was raised in a Dutch Calvinist household. His father Edgar ran an auto-parts manufacturer, Prince Corp., that developed the lighted sun visor, a patented accessory that would make the Prince family fortune.“My father was focused on quality, volume, and customer satisfaction,” says Prince. “That’s what we talked about around the dinner table.” Edgar Prince exemplified not only entrepreneurship, but he also invested in the material and spiritual growth of Holland, Michigan — a town founded by Christian patriarchs — and supported institutions and politicians backing a right-wing, family-values agenda. After suffering a heart attack in the 1970s, Edgar started to devote himself to Christian causes. Erik has long exhibited those same value. He was considered a keen student in high school and would earn his pilot’s license at 17 and attend the Naval Academy. But he left after three years to attend Hillsdale College, in Michigan, a school with a strong libertarian philosophy, during which time he volunteered for Patrick Buchanan’s upstart 1992 campaign against Vice President George Bush and worked as a volunteer fireman. Prince then entered Officer Candidate School and was assigned upon graduation to Navy SEAL Team 8. It was here, in tactical training school, that he met Al Clark, whom many credit with coming up with the idea for a paramilitary company to capitalize on the outsourcing of military support services initiated by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Cheney had contracted Brown & Root, a subsidiary of his future employer, Halliburton, to report on the feasibility of outsourcing most military support functions, in 1992. Prince was deployed to Haiti and the Balkans, and performed carrier-based duty in the Middle East, before getting a phone call that would change his life, in 1995. While stepping onto an elevator at his office, Edgar Prince suffered a massive heart attack and died, at the age of 63. Soon after, the family decided to sell Prince Corp. It fetched $1.35 billion. Edgar’s wife Elsa, Erik, and Erik’s sister Betsy — who had married into the Amway fortune, a family with deep roots in far-right Republican causes — were the beneficiaries of the sale, making Erik, at 27, one of the wealthiest men in America.


It was about that time that Erik’s wife Joan was diagnosed with cancer. She would battle the disease for years before finally passing away. Doubly grief-stricken but committed to serving out his enlistment, Erik gave a lot of thought to his future. He now had the funds to do very big things. “I never was really expected to take over the family business,” he says. “It was always, Do something on your own.’’


Prince’s first venture after the navy was not what might be expected of the scion of an industrial giant. He purchased 6,000 acres near the Great Dismal Swamp, around Moyock, North Carolina, not far from where he had trained as a SEAL, and began planning Blackwater Lodge and Training Center, a private shooting range and training facility for military and law-enforcement personnel. The sudden appearance of a multimillionaire in a rural area, and one who wanted to allow customers to fire high-caliber weapons, piqued the interest of local officials and media. In a later e-mail interview with a regional newspaper, the Virginian-Pilot, he sought to assuage their concerns. “We see ourselves assisting in the transformation of the [Defense Department] into a faster, more nimble organization. The private sector has always led innovation in our country. If the government sees some of the things we are doing, and chooses to utilize us or to adopt and adapt some of our innovations in the defense of the nation, then all the better.”


Even before he went into business for himself, Prince was associated with Republican politics and other conservative activism. Among his father’s Christian causes was the religious lobby Focus on the Family, as well as Gary Bauer’s similar group, the Family Research Council. “I can say without hesitation that without [Edgar Prince and his family], there simply would not be a Family Research Council,” Bauer wrote to supporters in 1995. The Prince family has given more than $325,000 over the last decade to politicians and party organizations, nearly all of them Republican. Prince’s associates could set a paranoid lefty’s hair on fire. One of his closest confidants, for example, is Charles Colson, a Watergate convict who found God and became active in the Christian Right. Prince is also on the board of a Christian missionary group founded by Reagan administration officials involved in the Iran-contra scandal. In September 2005 Prince hired the former inspector general of the Pentagon, Joseph Schmitz, whose duties included investigating Blackwater contracts. Schmitz was forced to resign from government service during a congressional investigation in the execution of his duties during his tenure; his official bio lists his membership in the Order of Malta, whose website describes its mission as defending “territories that the Crusaders had conquered from the Moslems [sic].” “Stuff like this really takes a toll on the whole idea that Iraq is merely occupied,” says a former CIA officer who operated in Iraq. “It plants the idea in Iraqis’ minds that this is some sort of new colonialism.”


Still, Prince and former Blackwater execs insist the company has no political agenda. It “exists to serve the national security and foreign policy,” says former Blackwater Vice President for Strategic Initiatives Chris Taylor. “If you get a Democrat as president, and they decide not to use contractors, Erik will adjust. He is not tied into any particular administration.… His love is for results. Strategy knows no political party.…” Insiders more or less agree.“


Blackwater has people running around the Pentagon every day essentially ‘feather-bedding,’’’ says the former CIA officer, who also worked in Beirut in the 1990s and maintains close connections in the military and at Langley. “You stick your head in an office saying, ‘I hear you’re retiring in two weeks. How’d you like a job with Blackwater? And by the way, there’s a contract out in Afghanistan that we’d love to have.’ It’s not even subtle.” Neither is the name. the coffee-colored blackwater River feeds off the Great Dismal Swamp, along the North Carolina–Virginia border, and it is here that Prince started building his business. On the strength of the experiences detailed in my book The World’s Most Dangerous Places, I was invited down in spring 2004 to teach a class on “mirroring terrorists.” At the time, the place looked like a hunting lodge: A 600-pound stuffed black bear, shot on the property in 2000, greeted visitors, and 50-cal gun barrels had been repurposed as door handles; inside were a mounted deer head on the wall, a bobcat perched on the curtain rod, and a fox positioned in an eternally unrequited scene, its mouth frozen mid-snap just inches from a stuffed partridge. Fox News blared permanently from a corner-mounted TV, and the high school–style cafeteria smelled downright homey. The location was chosen partly for its proximity to dozens of military bases around the mouth of the Chesapeake in need of a physical plant for firearm and tactical drills, and the facility has been expanding almost from the moment it opened in 1998. (Republican representatives Dana Rohrabacher and John Doolittle flew in for the opening.) Soon after the Columbine shootings, in 1999, a building dubbed R U Ready High School was constructed, with SWAT teams invited from around the country to prepare for crazed teen shooters. A year later, after the bombing of the USS Cole by Al Qaeda, a battleship-gray superstructure rose above the shooting ranges. The next year, after 9/11, airplane carcasses started appearing on the grounds, for training against hijackers. As threats emerged, Blackwater adapted. As Blackwater adapted, contracts were granted. And as contracts were granted, the company could expand further. On April 16, 2004, after rejecting Blackwater’s entreaties for six years, county officials amended local regulations to allow the company to double the size of its facilities. The new headquarters is 70,000 square feet, the company’s bear-claw-in-the-crosshairs logo looming over the entrance. Six months after it opened, company president Gary Jackson boasted, “In the last 18 months we’ve had over 600 percent growth.” Though he now says growth will likely slow to around 25–50 percent in 2007, the Global War on Terror has been good for business.


At the new facility is a statue of a boy holding a folded American flag — the symbol military veterans are honored with in death, which traditionally goes to a survivor. But House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, during Congressional hearings he called about the company, asked, “Is Blackwater…helping or hurting our efforts in Iraq?” Is Prince serving his country like the unseen fallen soldier honored by the statue at his company headquarters? In the early years, when it was a mere shooting range and target manufacturer, Blackwater was operating on the margins. Now the company is successful beyond anyone’s imagination, having reaped  more than $1 billion in federal contracts since 2001.The Swamp is now a bustling industrial park; from training and targets it has moved into executive security, aviation, and K9; it has a construction company and a new armored car designed by a monster-truck builder. Blackwater is launching a surveillance blimp, its own line of gear and uniforms, emergency housing, a training ship, and an airline that was just awarded a $90 million contract to ferry U.S. military personnel and equipment around Central Asia. It’s planning to open new training facilities in California and rolling out an intelligence-gathering operation. You can even buy a Blackwater-label handgun. Blackwater’s major entrée into the public consciousness came when the State Department hired it to keep CPA head L. Paul Bremer alive. In August, 2003, a suicide bomber believed to be linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi blew up the UN’s mission in Iraq, killing its top official there, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and at least 21 others. “After the UN bombing, there was concern about Bremer’s security,” Prince recalls. Bremer’s predecessor, Major General Jay Garner, got by with a crew of national guardsmen, but Bremer wanted to move around the country at a time when Al Qaeda wanted him dead. The CPA “asked for an aviation capacity,” Prince says. “We were doing aviation support for the U.S. The Secret Service came in and did a survey. ‘That’s not really our job,’ they said.… Twenty-eight days after [being] asked, we were on the ground.”


In short order, Blackwater put together the most intimidating Praetorian guard ever assembled by a private company. Sixty-four men, a dozen armored cars, tanklike Mambas, and a fleet of Little Birds painted black with a snappy white stripe. Two pilots dodged groundfire while twin snipers bearing SAWs hung from straps in the rear. The security detail below and the aerial support team, a.k.a. the Flying Circus, soon became a common sight in Baghdad. Everybody knew when Bremer moved. Blackwater pilots were flying around like air-show show-offs, sometimes just a few feet above the rooftops of the sprawling city, in crazy arcs and hammerheads, while the armored crew cleared the road below.Blackwater grew again in June 2004, when the State Department awarded the company its Worldwide Personal Protective Services contract. A State Department audit later revealed that the company had included profit in its overhead, “applying profit to profit.” It also accused Blackwater of double-billing. More than 1,800 people in nine countries currently work as independent contractors for Blackwater. (The company has just 550 salaried employees, who have no pensions or health care.) It trains 35,000 personnel a year. Blackwater’s eight-week, $23,000 training course (currently on hold) has fielded a 1,748-man air-supported army deployable in less than two weeks anywhere in the world. Among current and former Blackwater contractors are Chileans who worked in security services of the Pinochet dictatorship; Colombian ex-paramilitaries; veterans of the Apartheid regime; and other “third country nationals.”


In recent years, the company has provided training to the Afghan antinarcotics effort and a special operations unit in Jordan, trained and oil pipeline protection force in Azerbaijan, and worked on infrastructure projects in Liberia and elsewhere. Current and future deals include guarding the Associated Press in Iraq and the new Saudi embassy there. Charles Peña, a defense policy analyst with the Independent Institute, a Washington, DC, think tank, wonders about Blackwater’s ultimate allegiance. “Are there instances,” Peña asks, “and what are those instances, where the interests of the PSC might diverge from the interest of the federal government?’’Prince cited in congressional testimony on October 2 a Government Accountability Office finding that Special Forces were not leaving the military at a greater rate since the expansion of PSCs than they had been before. But Blackwater, Peña says, “tends to recruit the best and the brightest out of the military. That’s not in the military’s interest. We know that even before Operation Iraqi Freedom, firms like Blackwater were recruiting Special Forces guys out of [Afghanistan]. Yet those are the very people we needed on the ground to go after Bin Laden. The interests of the company don’t necessarily mirror those of the U.S. government.” The use of private security contractors has come a long way since Dick Cheney’s study on outsourcing. Security contractors were not unheard of prior to the 1990s; they were involved in the clandestine wars in Laos during the Vietnam War. But the post–Cold War paradigm mandated being able to fight and decisively win two major theater wars simultaneously — those roughly the size and scope of the first Gulf War, in which 500,000 U.S. soldiers were deployed.But the downsizing, all-volunteer U.S. military was no longer up to the task. In Somalia private contractor KBR was the first to hit the beach and the last to pack up. In Bosnia much of the heavy lifting, training, and reconstruction went to private firms. In Iraq, contracts were awarded for reconstruction before the first bomb was dropped, and PSCs were involved in the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. Nobody really knows how many PSCs there are in Iraq, but estimates range from 20,000–48,000. “There have been private militaries going back to the Roman Empire,” Prince once told me over the phone from Wyoming. “The U.S. is the biggest buyer of those kind of services. To have a successful business you need a volume customer.”


“If you’re in a situation like we are today,” says Charles Peña, “there aren’t enough guys in uniforms and carrying guns to do everything that needs doing.”


“There’s a possibility,” says Representative David Price (D-NC), whose bill to extend the jurisdiction of U.S. courts to PSCs in Iraq passed the House October 5, “that PSCs are being utilized to somehow mask the true extent of our involvement.” Prince modestly says that he wants Blackwater “to be the fifth column of the military.” The only difference is that the military has oversight, accountability, and a justice system. “We have a very disciplined military, and a very regimented chain of command,” says Paul Rieckoff, the infantry platoon leader who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. “And PSCs are not encumbered by that chain of command, or by the same rules of engagement, the same methods of approval, the same accountability. So they can roll through a neighborhood, do some shooting, and not have to answer to anyone.”  Sunday, september 16, was supposed to be an easy day for the Blackwater team: run a client a couple of clicks north for a meeting at the Izdahar financial compound and then back to the relative security of the Green Zone. But a car bomb 30 meters away went off during the meeting, prompting an evacuation. A radio call brought in Blackwater’s Quick Reaction Force, based in the Green Zone, for backup, a team much like the one I was embedded with in 2004–’05. Exactly what happened that day in Nisour Square will probably never be known. But the wreckage left behind included at least 11 Iraqi civilians killed by Blackwater (20, according to the Iraqi Interior Ministry) and dozens more wounded; a surfeit of indignant and grieving witnesses; and a burning car containing corpses. The scorched flesh of one of the dead was melded to another, clutching each other even in death. “The ‘civilians’ reportedly fired upon by Blackwater professionals were in fact armed enemies,” read a Blackwater statement, “and Blackwater personnel returned defensive fire. Blackwater professionals heroically defended American lives.”


It was unclear which American lives (other than its own in Nisour Square) Blackwater was defending, or from what. Moreover, as the American investigation would reveal, one Blackwater professional ordered others to cease fire, even aiming a gun at one of the others to emphasize his point. Sources of mine confirmed this detail.


Within hours, an enraged Ministry of the Interior announced it was revoking Blackwater’s license and calling for its expulsion from the country. By the third day there was a full-blown international incident. While Blackwater didn’t hold a license that could be revoked (only its weapons are licensed), the U.S. embassy said that all trips outside the Green Zone would be suspended in an effort to keep Blackwater off the streets. (This decision effectively shut down delicate diplomacy between tribal sheikhs who were in the process of shifting allegiance from anti-American forces.) Just a week after Ambassador Ryan Crocker praised Blackwater in a speech, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was forced to make a supplicating phone call to Iraq’s prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who said the fatal shooting was the seventh involving the company. On October 4 she issued new State Department rules regarding contractors.


Rhetoric flew like mortars, a joint investigation was launched, and the repeal of the infamous CPA Order 17, immunizing contractors from Iraqi law, was set in motion. By September 25, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had sent a fact-finding team to Baghdad, tasked with looking into the events of nine days prior and examining the role of PSCs in Operation Enduring Freedom. The State Department’s own fact-finder and the FBI would follow.Once again the North Carolina–based private militia had slipped American policy in Iraq sideways. (The first time was in 2004, after the deaths of four Blackwater guards in Fallujah inspired the Pentagon to literally send in the marines, with the purpose of pacifying the city.) And suddenly the questions on everyone’s minds, which had somehow been heretofore ignored despite the company’s highly significant role in Iraq since the days of the CPA in 2003, became: Who exactly are these Blackwater guys, what are they really doing in Iraq, and what will they do next? In powerpoint demonstrations before the procurement folks doling out the contracts, in its literature, in public statements, and elsewhere, Blackwater presents itself as the sine qua non of military training expertise. Ron Green, who worked for KBR as a procurement manager in Mosul and has experience with several PSCs in Iraq and elsewhere, says, “If I had to go out somewhere and I had to choose [my escort], I’d choose Blackwater. I shouldn’t say one is better than the other — I just don’t know — but that’s the way I feel about it.”


Blackwater’s ability to cut costs and outperform the government is at the core of Blackwater’s raison d’être, and a frequent theme of Erik Prince’s public appearances. Prince speaks with the zeal of a true believer on a mission to change how government business is done. “You can’t transform a static bureaucracy,” he told me that day in the lounge of the Ritz, not far from his office in McLean, Virginia, which provides easy access to the corridors of power at the Pentagon and the CIA. “You need competition to create new benchmarks for performance and cost.“


We constantly show the military how efficient we can be,” he continued. “The military has footprint to support footprint to support footprint. It takes four of our guys to operate an [unmanned aerial vehicle]; it takes over 60 for the CIA.”


Prince would tread this ground again before Congress, talking about the military’s high “tooth-to-tail ratio.” The most excited he seemed in his appearance before Waxman’s Oversight Committee was at the prospect of an economic analysis to compare the military with Blackwater. The UN’s mission in Bosnia provided inspiration for his founding the company; private industry could do it better, he says he wrote in a letter to his wife from an aircraft carrier off the Balkans while serving in the navy. Blackwater executives even visited Darfur in 2006 to research how the company could help refugees under attack by Sudan’s government-linked militia. “I am in favor of helping [prevent] poor people from getting slaughtered,” Prince told me last fall. “We would use smaller organizations. Better trained, higher paid — but with lower costs. Why do we expect First World performance out of Third World countries?’’ He sees the UN as “a racket used to fund undisciplined, poorly trained and equipped Third World armies. We want to do to the military what FedEx did to the postal service. They didn’t replace it; they just made it more efficient.”


It’s certainly true that there are instances in which Blackwater has kicked the military’s ass on procurement. When U.S. soldiers were scrounging around for scrap metal to strap onto their Humvees, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was blaming the delay for more armor on a backup in the supply chain, Blackwater designed, built, and deployed the Bearcat and the Grizzly armored personnel carriers in a matter of weeks. (Only Blackwater teams got to use the vehicles.)But significant questions have been raised by former employees, government investigations, and through the discovery process of ongoing litigation about how well the company prepares its employees for potential hostile encounters in the field. The Fallujah killings of March 31, 2004, in which four Blackwater contractors were killed, and two hung from a bridge, could have been avoided, it is alleged by the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (as well as in a lawsuit brought by the contractors’ families). Had Blackwater spent more of its resources protecting the men and making sure they didn’t get into such a situation in the first place, they might be alive today, and the war might have taken a very different course, too.


Indeed, in the weeks leading up to March 31, 2004, the mantra at Blackwater’s base camp in Kuwait, out of which the Fallujah four — Scott Helvenston, Jerry Zovko, Wesley Batalona, and Mike Teague — operated, was “We don’t have the materials we need.” Forget about the Mamba team’s armored personnel carriers; the Blackwater guys were driving Mitsubishi Pajeros, just like the soft-skinned SUVs soccer moms use to chauffeur junior to Sunday school. The day before the slaughter Blackwater’s operations manager in Baghdad, Tom Powell, e-mailed his superiors stateside and in Kuwait. “I need NEW VEHICLES… I need ammo… I need Glocks and M4s… I’ve requested Hard cars from the beginning… Ground Truth is appauling [sic].” But despite this last, desperate request, armored vehicles were not forthcoming.“About a month before the events of March 31,” says Bart Kohler, a former Blackwater operator who was in country at the time of the ambush in Fallujah, “our program manager John Potter called a meeting of everyone at base in Kuwait to discuss the resistance of higher-ups to provide the necessary equipment, specifically armored vehicles. ‘We need to all be united on this,’ he told us. ‘As a team, we need to refuse any missions until the equipment we require is provided.’ We were all in agreement. Less than a week later, Potter was removed from the project. The message was clear.” The failure to provide up-armored vehicles and adequate personnel for the mission that found Helvenston and the others lost in Fallujah is at the heart of a wrongful death suit against Blackwater. “We want to have accountability,” says Dan Callahan, the lead attorney representing the families of the four men. “The families want to have answers on what happened that day.”


But one former contractor with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that a Kuwaiti client would have been responsible for procuring the equipment. The company in question, Regency Hotel & Hospitality (RHHS), was subcontracted by ESS, which, in turn, was itself subcontracted by KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton. An e-mail from Mike Rush, a Blackwater executive, and the contract with ESS/Regency, which was provided to Men’s Journal, support this. When Blackwater program managers appealed to their higher-ups, Rush told them they could “draw the line when it is not safe or prudent to conduct operations in unreliable vehicles” and that “it is in fact up to RHHS to fix some of the things you mentioned, particularly reliable vehicles.” The removal of John Potter apparently left his successors unwilling or unable to press their bosses too hard for better equipment. The anonymous source says Regency was the company that dismissed Potter, as was its right under the terms of the contract. For the Blackwater guys in country, it was uncertain who exactly they were answering to. Whoever was responsible for procuring the equipment, the military’s outsourcing policy and Congress’s failure to provide adequate oversight is at the root of the Fallujah deaths. What happened next could be traced all the way up the ladder to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President Bush, with his “Bring ’em on” rhetoric. Despite warnings about the implications of a siege on the city from General James T. Conway, the commander of the marines who had recently taken over al-Anbar province (Fallujah’s province) from the army’s 82nd Airborne, the deaths nonetheless led directly to a wholesale assault five days later: Operation Vigilant Resolve was explicitly in search of the killers. “It was tragic to see the destruction brought to this whole city,” says marine reserve sergeant Todd Bowers, who now works for IAVA, recounting his deployment with the Fifth Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, during the second battle of Fallujah, in November 2004. “What had happened there — that single incident blasted across television screens all over the world, of those four American contractors who died — for a reason that could have been avoided.” Once things had calmed down, marine graffiti appeared on “Blackwater Bridge”: this is for the americans of blackwater, it read. p.s. fuck you. The Fallujah siege, says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Sarah Lawrence College and a Carnegie Scholar who follows the Arab media and street closely, “was a pivotal event, not just inside Iraq but throughout the Arab and Muslim world.” F-16s dropped 500-pound bombs on mosques; all told, hundreds of civilians died. When I reach him at his family retreat in Wyoming, via sat phone from Baghdad, Prince tells me, “We are helping to pursue U.S. interests.” blackwater, dyncorp, and triple Canopy all provide for the State Department’s security in Iraq, but it’s well-known that the U.S. gives its most sensitive assignments to Blackwater. Questions have been raised since September 16 about whether PSCs in general, with their lack of accountability, and Blackwater in particular, with its hard-charging Special Forces vets, should be tasked with such a high-profile job when the impression of Americans in Iraq is as important as any victories on the battlefield.According to the Oversight Committee, 195 violent incidents in Iraq between 2005 and 2007 involved Blackwater. In 163 cases, Blackwater fired first.


“Blackwater has more [shootings] because they are protecting the ambassador! You can’t get Ryan Crocker through Baghdad every day using low profile!” Chris Taylor is yelling to me over the phone from his office at the Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is in graduate school now, after having left his job at Blackwater.The image of a private security contractor is one most Iraqis have come to despise. Gunned-up, geared-out, and heavily armed, their high-speed convoys blow by civilians, guns bristling, impassive faces behind sunglasses and armored plate. The “high-profile” stance is weapons at the ready, clearing traffic, sending civilians scattering like pigeons, both heralding their arrival and keeping transgressors at bay with the dut-dut-dut of a heavy machine gun. “The Iraqis used to call the contractors ‘black death,’ ” recalls Rieckhoff, who wrote a book of his experience, Chasing Ghosts — Failures and Façades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective, “and the Iraqis don’t know that these guys aren’t part of the military. Maybe now they do, but back in ’03 and ’04, they thought they were just another unit of the American military. And that’s incredibly damaging when we’re trying to win hearts and minds.”


A military veteran and former contractor for Blackwater and several other PSCs, who worked in Afghanistan (and didn’t want to be named because he signed a lifelong nondisclosure agreement with the company), told Men’s Journal, “Having been in the military and whatnot, I know that when you’re working in an urban environment, you just can’t spray-and-pray and not have civilian casualties.”


“A lot of these [PSC] guys are on their third or fourth marriages, paying a mortgage on a house they don’t live in, child support — their life has come to a bitter dead end,” says the former CIA officer. “Some of them have criminal records. It’s not a good environment [in which] to give someone an MP5.” (Prince told Congress that his contractors go through criminal background checks.) The former Blackwater contractor cast doubt on the appropriateness of the company’s tactics in the combat environment in which it was operating. He thought Blackwater “placed a lot of emphasis on shooting skills. They had ‘range days’ once a week, where you’d have to go shoot; they were constantly pushing shooting, shooting, shooting. I worked in Kabul, and they found an IED a few hundred yards from the American embassy. But we never received any classes on how to identify an IED.”A person with direct knowledge of Blackwater’s professional liability arrangements says its teams are required, whenever they’re on duty, to carry a large number of U.S. dollars (the source declined to disclose the exact figure) for immediate payments to victims of collateral damage or mistaken-ID shootings. the last time i ran into erik prince, at a conference in late 2006, he allowed that multiple pending lawsuits against Blackwater, brought by the families of the men who died in Fallujah and in the crash of a Blackwater CASA 212 in Afghanistan, have crippled his ability to speak on the record. But his unabashed zeal for his mission was demonstrated on October 2, when he appeared before Congress at the request of the House Oversight Committee. Democratic chair Waxman has not been shy about using his new majority status to look into the Bush administration’s contracts, especially those involving Blackwater. Prince, says his former employee, Chris Taylor, “is not afraid to sit in front of his Congress and say, ‘I am working for you. I am doing exactly what you are asking me to do.’”If only. Prince’s appearance before Congress was perhaps the most cogent example of how Prince’s baby has taken on a life of its own. Wearing the Washington uniform of blue suit, white shirt, and red tie, he appeared unbowed as he took his oath and read his opening statement. Republicans were eager to point out Blackwater’s “perfect record,” in the words used by at least two of them, in guarding its charges — while sacrificing the lives of its own men. Democrats took the opportunity to saddle Blackwater with just about everything that’s gone wrong in Iraq. But the former navy SEAL seemed incapable of defending his position without calling in the marines for backup. When a young freshman on the left side of the aisle, late in the questioning portion of the hearing, asked about Blackwater’s profitability, Prince couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide a figure. He appeared confident in stating that the Uniform Code of Military Justice applied to his men, even though the New York Times, Washington Post, and seemingly every other daily news outlet in the days previous had been rife with reports that the Pentagon had failed to implement instructions from Congress to make it so. Other Democrats sought to pin him down on accountability, but Prince couldn’t quite say what is true enough: Providing accountability for PSCs is not Blackwater’s responsibility. Congress makes the laws that would bring contractors under the law. They tried to blame him for the State Department’s use of contractors instead of military men, but Prince didn’t need to point out that doing so would be the department’s decision, not his. Perhaps his attorneys had advised him to not be combative, but what was ultimately clear from sitting close enough to Prince to read the notes his counsel passed to him was that he is his own man, and at the end of the day nobody is telling him what to do or say.in spring 2002, prince, a former cia officer named Jamie Smith, and a few other Blackwater contractors headed out on their first job providing security for the CIA in Afghanistan. Prince was so impressed with the encounter that, after his two-week deployment, he applied to become a full-timer, a “Blue Badger” in the CIA’s covert Special Activities Division. The experience of being on the edge of empire, in a mud fort surrounded by people who wanted to kill him, had shot him through with purpose. But he failed to make the cut. Prince says the reason was “not enough hard skills.”Prince, like the Special Forces vets he employs, still seems to want to attain some of the glory that eluded him during his stint in the navy during the peaceful 1990s. “My proudest professional moment,” Prince told Congress, “came when I spoke at the War College a few weeks ago.” He recounted the story of a brigadier general approaching him afterward and praising his work. Prince is proud of his company, and it’s clear he wants to change the way America wages war. In ways he may not have intended, he already has.