Erik Prince: Blackwater founder on the ‘business of war’

Kai Ryssdal Nov 18, 2013

Erik Prince: Blackwater founder on the ‘business of war’

Kai Ryssdal Nov 18, 2013

Erik Prince, the founder and former CEO of Blackwater, says it’s now time for him to tell his side of the story after years of being known as one of the most notorious military contractors. Prince has written a new book, “Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror,” where he talks about being a military contractor during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Erik Prince: Thanks for having me.

Kai Ryssdal: This is fundamentally a book about the business of war and clearly the war part you were prepared for. I wonder if you were prepared though for the business part of what you got yourself into.

Prince: I would say we were prepared for the business side of it and we were definitely prepared for the dangers of war. We were not prepared for the politics of it all.

Ryssdal: Let me do this. Let me read you back to yourself and I want to ask you about a question about this thing you wrote. We’re on page four actually. Pretty early in the book and you say: “the business of war has never been pretty, but I did my job legally and I did it completely. Too well perhaps growing Blackwater until it became something resembling its own branch of the military and other government agencies.” I wonder if that’s pretty much your whole problem in a nutshell right there? That the public perceived you as an independent military force in a very volatile place without much recourse to accountability.

Prince: Well, it’s inaccurate. Yes we had a lot of capability, we grew. You know when I had a colonel come up to me after speaking at the war college and say, you know, he had just come back from brigade command in Baghdad. So he had three to four thousand people working for him and he said in the top of the dashboards were the Blackwater call signs and they knew if things went bad, the Blackwater guys would come from them when they called–

Ryssdal: I’m not, I’m not–

Prince: I wish we had been doing diplomatic security in Benghazi. I can tell you that Benghazi would not have happened if Blackwater were on the job there.

Ryssdal: Tell you what, let’s stay actually where you were on the ground. I’m not disputing the fact that the military came to rely on you and the State department came to rely on you, but I’m asking you this perception question. In the eyes of the American public, did it perhaps happen that you guys became a negative because of how you were perceived? It’s a brand question right? The Blackwater brand. You talk about this a lot in this book.

Prince: Sure, if it’s just a matter of branding. You know look, we were slimed along the way by trial lawyers. We were slimed along the way by a press that was tired of the Bush/Iraq war. And you know, being armed people that were protecting diplomats was a very easy target to them.

Ryssdal: You are clearly unhappy with you how and company have been treated in the days since Nisour Square in Baghdad and certainly since 2010 when you actively left the company. My question then is if we are going to have private military contractors, which as you point out we’ve had in this country for hundreds of years, how would you like them to be treated? How should they be held accountable? How should they be disciplined? How should they be regulated? How should they act?

Prince: Have the contractors abided by the contracts and the governments abided by the contracts that they signed up to? It’s a two way straight, not a one-way street.

Ryssdal: And then when things go very very wrong, as they did in Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007 when seventeen Iraqis died, what happens? [Read more about Nisour Square from the Department of Justice, New York Times and Reuters].

Prince: Again, there was eleven Iraqis that died.

Ryssdal: Okay, I stand corrected. But loss of life is loss of civilian life. What is supposed to happen then?

Prince: Well, first of all we support due process for anyone that’s accused. Speedy trials not a prolonged six year office of circumlocution from the Department of Justice. You know look, any innocent loss of life is tragic and we’re truly sorry for that. But employing thousands of people, unfortunately even a turbine engine breaks and the turbine engine only has three or four moving parts.

Ryssdal: I wonder if you realized back then when you were signing these contracts and even if you realize now that when the CIA, when the Pentagon, when the Department of State signed these contracts with you, what they were effectively doing to some degree, was outsourcing their political risk. So when things happened like Nisour square, they can say “Woah wait, this was the contractors man.”

Prince: Well they’re not doing it to outsource their political risk. They’re doing it because they truly don’t have the manpower or the logistics capability to fulfill those missions. So really the company becomes like a very robust temp agency operating under very much under the command and control of the government.

Ryssdal: You have written or said, I can’t actually remember if it’s in this book or if it’s in a quote I’ve read of yours somewhere, you wanted Blackwater to be to the Pentagon as FedEx is to the US Postal Service.

Prince: I did say that and I agree with that. I think in this era of ridiculously high defense and intelligence budgets, we as a taxpayer could get a lot better value if there is more private benchmarks for how much some of these would cost and there is plenty of room to cut the defense budget and I think–

Ryssdal: You’re not making yourself any friends in Washington when you say that. I guess you don’t have many friends in Washington probably do you?

Prince: That’s not something I’m really worried about right now. But, you know I want to take away the notion that it’s unpatriotic to cut the defense budget. I love the US military. I want them to be the most effective and the most cost-effective and I think there is so much spending and so much bloat and so much bureaucracy that it actually hinders them from having a lot of the mission accomplishments that they should.

Ryssdal: Erik Prince founded and for many years ran Blackwater Incoporated. His new book is called Civilian Warriors: The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror. Erik thanks very much for your time.

Prince: You bet, Thank you.

More from Marketplace’s interview with Erik Prince:

Erik Prince on why we should cut the defense budget:

Erik Prince on Blackwater’s image problem during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars:

Read an excerpt from Civilian Warriors (pdf)

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