“When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.”
“What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose –how does the quotation run? – his own soul?” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Why compare Erik Prince, founder, owner and former CEO of Xe Services, a.k.a. Blackwater Worldwide, with the fictional villain Dorian Gray? Because while Gray was in one sense an allegory for the corruption of Victorian England, so Prince is a parable for post-9/11 America and the Global War on Terror.
Prince, of course, is a mortal man, not a literary device. He cannot belie the lines on his once boyish face by conveying them to a painting locked in his attic. He has, however, spent the last decade as the beneficiary of our own voracious but mishandled appetite for war. He has grown in wealth – in power and in coin – while the United States, like the ugly portrait hidden away, bears the grotesque scars of its elaborate financial and moral sacrifices.
In fact, wherever our wars have taken us – whether it be Afghanistan or Iraq, Pakistan or Somalia – it is like a gallery of horrors, lost chances and smoldering craters of hope and false promise. Iraq is but the latest. The best our president could say as he marked the so-called end of seven years of combat operations in Iraq is that the country now “has the opportunity to embrace a new destiny, even though many challenges remain.”
You bet, beginning with the so far unfulfilled challenge of returning some five million displaced persons, and ensuring Baghdad doesn’t become a revenge-fueled torture chamber for former Ba’athists and Sunnis. Not to mention the fact Iraq has no viable government and the country is more religiously fundamentalist and women constitutionally less free than they were before. As for the landscape itself, it is an environmental horror show of our own making, slowly eating away at Iraq’s people – and our own – as American soldiers hobble home with the respiratory capacities of old men, coughing up “black lung cookies” and succumbing to strange cancers.
Meanwhile, it seems like the only thing actually growing and prospering from our wars abroad is big business – the private companies, the war profiteers and steely corporate warriors who know how to game the system. Prince, who recently pranced to Abu Dhabi, bags in hand, to try and avoid the legal noose swinging for him back home in the states, is probably the most successful of the lot, gaining access to more than $1.75 billion in government contracts since 2001.
In fact, even as the wars corrode and corrupt and deplete our mission, not to mention our integrity as a nation, Prince gets wealthier and his business busier.
A Man of Prosperity and Power
Prince, 41, is a Christian conservative with deep roots in Republican politics who appears driven as much by ideology as by profit (his own former employees accuse him of being on a “religious crusade” against Muslims). He talks freely of his patriotism and “service,” but helps himself to plenty on the side. In fact, contained in a recent $42 million settlement with the State Department were charges that Prince had offered Blackwater’s commando training services to the leader of Southern Sudan in direct violation of U.S. sanctions – in return for as much as half of that beleaguered country’s mineral wealth.
A mercenary for our times.
As of today, Prince’s empire includes parent company Xe Services (of which Prince is the owner and manager through the Prince Group LLC and EP Investments LLC) and at least 26 subsidiaries including the 7,000-acre U.S. Training Center in North Carolina, Blackwater Target Systems, Blackwater Security Consulting, Blackwater West and Greystone Limited. Subsidiaries under the Prince Group include Total Intelligence Solutions, Technical Defense Inc., and the Terrorism Research Center Inc.
Congress is currently looking at how some of these “shell companies” were used to obtain government contracts while the parent company was taking a heavy PR beating over the 2007 killing of 17 civilian Iraqis in Nisoor Square, not to mention its reputation for excessive use of force (200 questionable shooting incidents in three years), and a string of other scandals, including fraud and illegal weapons smuggling.
According to The New York Times, Blackwater and its offshoots have received upwards of $600 million in classified C.I.A contracts since 2001. Details of Blackwater’s intimate, mostly secret relationship with the spy agency indicate that Prince is more than a procurer of security guards, trainers and airships. Instead, he and Xe/Blackwater play a special auxiliary role in the U.S. war machine. A former Navy SEAL, Prince has populated his holdings with ex-CIA and military, and by all reports, has operated almost seamlessly with the CIA on some of its most sensitive counter-terror missions (in an untold number of countries).
Officially, the CIA maintains that all work Xe/Blackwater has done for the agency was “in strict accordance with the law.” But years ago, reports began surfacing that varying subsidiaries in the Prince empire were engaging in activities with the CIA that clearly rubbed against, if not skirted the law. In 2009, the New York Times reported that Blackwater had been hired in 2002 to assist with a secret CIA assassination program that operated largely in the dark, with the Congress knowing nothing of their activities until the Bush Administration left town.
Then it was revealed that “tactical action operatives” from Blackwater had been participating directly in clandestine raids with the CIA against suspected insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq on a regular basis.
From the New York Times, December 2009:
“Several former Blackwater guards said that their involvement in the operations became so routine that the lines supposedly dividing the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and Blackwater became blurred. Instead of simply providing security for C.I.A. officers, they say, Blackwater personnel at times became partners in missions to capture or kill militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, a practice that raises questions about the use of guns for hire on the battlefield. …
“The secret missions illuminate a far deeper relationship between the spy agency and the private security company than government officials had acknowledged. Blackwater’s partnership with the C.I.A. has been enormously profitable for the North Carolina-based company, and became even closer after several top agency officials joined Blackwater.
“’It became a very brotherly relationship,’ said one former top C.I.A. officer. ‘There was a feeling that Blackwater eventually became an extension of the agency.’
“George Little, a C.I.A. spokesman, would not comment on Blackwater’s ties to the agency. But he said the C.I.A. employs contractors to ‘enhance the skills of our own work force, just as American law permits.’”
Maybe so, said constitutional law expert Jonathan Turley, interviewed by ABC News in Dec. 2009. But he reminded, too, that “the United States Congress has never approved the use of private contractors for combat operations.”
Erik Prince, steamed for what he saw was the CIA blowing his cover and then throwing him under the Aston Martin, gave a gratuitously self-pitying interview to Vanity Fair in January 2010, casting himself as a sort of cross between James Bond and Rambo, with a dash of that bearded don from the Dos Equis beer commercials.
“I put myself and my company at the C.I.A.’s disposal for some very risky missions,” Prince says. ““But when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus.”
There was more than puffery going on here. Sources “with direct knowledge of the relationship,” confirmed with writer Adam Ciralsky that Prince had been secretly “doing the CIA’s bidding, helping to craft, fund, and execute operations ranging from inserting personnel into ‘denied areas’ –places U.S. intelligence has trouble penetrating – to assembling hit teams targeting al-Qaeda members and their allies … working as a CIA asset: in a word, as a spy.”
As Vanity Fair was relating these details, Jeremy Scahill of The Nation revealed that Blackwater “snatch and grab” teams were carrying out covert missions for the Department of Defense, specifically, the infamous Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), once led by former Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in Pakistan. The U.S. military is not even supposed be in Pakistan, and at first it denied the story. DoD chief Bob Gates later confirmed that indeed, Blackwater was in Pakistan under a U.S. government contract.
“I’m going to teach high school,” he told Vanity Fair. “History and economics. I may even coach wrestling. Hey, Indiana Jones taught school, too.”
Nice touch, but to say that it’s been “business as usual” ever since would be an understatement, and it is impossible to see where Prince’s stewardship leaves off and the activities of many of his holdings begin. Despite myriad charges of fraud, murder and illegal activities that only serve to sully America’s reputation even further, Prince’s companies continue to enjoy freedom of professional movement all over the GWOT, and maintain multi-million dollar contracts with Uncle Sam.
A Faustian Bargain?
One would think that after being banned by the government of Iraq Blackwater would be radioactive.
But a name change appears to be the company’s only act of contrition and a series of settlements with the families of the murdered Iraqis its only bump in the road – so far. The State Department still extended Blackwater’s lucrative diplomatic security contract in Iraq at least once before finally letting it expire in 2009. It approved its contract for air support through a Blackwater subsidiary, Presidential Airlines, the same year. Xe has supposedly operated in Iraq even longer than that through subsidiaries. What goes on behind the scenes is still largely circumspect – it was revealed only late last year that Blackwater had been bribing Iraqi officials to stay in their good graces.
On top of it all, Blackwater stands accused of chiseling the State Department out of $55 million (which the company disputes) in Iraq. Despite that, Xe was awarded a new $124 million contract in Afghanistan to provide security for the CIA in the war zone. Meanwhile, two guards working for Paravant LLC, a subsidiary of Xe, are currently on trial for killing two Afghan civilians in 2009, and three former Blackwater officials, including president Gary Jackson, face federal weapons charges.
When asked how Xe, with this track record from hell, could possibly get a multi-million dollar contract providing security in Afghanistan right now, CIA director Leon Panetta said the government “had no choice,” that Xe was the only company that could provide the services the agency was looking for. We hear this story all of the time – that the government must deal with the Blackwaters, Halliburtons and KBRs of the world that cheat us, engage in war profiteering and the rack and ruin of our reputation, only because there is no one else.
The State Department is no better. In the aforementioned agreement with the agency, Blackwater was forced to pay $42 million in fines for “hundreds of violations” of export control regulations, like smuggling weapons into Afghanistan. Prince could have been indicted as a criminal, but he and his company got off. Under the agreed-upon terms, Xe/Blackwater will face no federal charges and will be able to continue to obtain government contracts.
Of course, this is not a parable or allegory. Prince was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the government’s ill-begotten desire to privatize much of the GWOT and he made out like a bandit – especially now that the government is so far into war that it has no choice but to farm it out.
But like Dorian Gray, Prince’s days – at least as an unstoppable asset of the U.S. war machine – may indeed be numbered. His assorted legal woes – which also include charges of prostitution and billing the government for strippers – have followed him to straight to Abu Dhabi. He may have gained “the whole world” only to lose it. At one point he and those who made him will have to face the monstrous visage staring out from the portrait in the attic. Sadly, the grotesquery is not the mirror image of him, but of America at war. It is us.