They are the mercenaries of the 21st century. Hired by the corporations and governments they fight across the world, thriving on wars, conflicts and human suffering. They are called private military companies, but what are they really? Why are they called on to the battlefield, sometimes by Washington itself? Is the US military unable to do its job properly? Today we seek answers from the founder of the former Blackwater – the biggest PMC in the States, but with its name already crime-stained. Erik Prince is on Sophie&Co.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Erik Prince, founder of the biggest US private military contractor, Blackwater. Great to have you with us.
We’re going to start from the very beginning. You created Blackwater to train US Navy SEALs. So how did you become of one of the biggest security contractors in the world?
Erik Prince: Well, I guess I was an accidental tourist. I got out of the Navy, out of the SEAL teams because my father died, my wife was sick with cancer, so I built a facility to stay connected to the SEAL teams. You know, SEAL team, Special Operations units in America have been using private facilities really since 1970s and no one has done it on industrial scale, and so I did.
I sold my father’s business, I took some of the money from that and I built a facility, and then one thing led to another. There was a terrible tragic shooting in Colorado, called the Columbine Shootings, and the USS Cole was blown up in Yemen in 2000, and then of course after 9/11 – we kept saying “yes” when US government called [saying] they need our help for training, for logistics support, aviation support, security – one thing led to another and we grew very quickly.
SS: So you obviously got innumerable government contracts. How do you explain your success? Was it because the military wasn’t able to do their job properly?
EP: Our success was based on a primarily former SpecOps people in our management team. Many of them had gone on to business school and worked in regular industry, and combining the best of industry knowledge with kind of SEAL teams’ Special Operations “can-do” attitude – it worked.
Look, the US military is very large, very capable, very good at conventional operations, but when you stop a massive conventional operation, you now have to re-task and become a counter-insurgency force that creates some gaps. You can’t take that air-defense missile guy and make him into policeman or into a bodyguard that quickly. So our skill set was taking existing pools of talent, guys that have served before, giving them the right training, the right equipment, the right capabilities to go out and do a job on a temporary basis.
SS: Is this what you were essentially? Policemen and private guards? Bodyguards? Is that your main difference with the military?
EP: The main missions of a contractor like that is not to do offensive combat operations, but to play defense when it’s necessary, whether it’s guarding base, guarding people, guarding a convoy, providing aviation support. So we’re not going out there doing offensive missions, but rather supporting the uniform services while they are doing their offensive missions. Certainly, operating that close, along the edge of battle means that sometimes we get shot at, our helicopter was shut down or aircraft was shot, and certainly our men were shot at an almost daily basis.
SS: But you were operating in a warzone, right? The military in Iraq and Afghanistan had very strict Rules of Engagement. Did you follow them?
EP: Sure. Depending on which customer you’re working for, whether you’re working for US military or the US State Department, they all have very similar Rules of Engagement, and ours were defensive. You’ve got to go through the whole Use of Force continuum all kinds of things you’ve got to do before lethal force would be used.
SS:I guess what I’m asking is if a mercenary commits a crime in combat, who holds him responsible? Because in the army, for example, there’s a hierarchy, always someone above you looking over your shoulder, and if you do something, then, you know…Who was doing that thing inside Blackwater, the hierarchy thing?
EP: The Rules of Engagement, again, come from the goverenmt0n that you’re working for. Technically, the work we were doing for the State Department, which we got a lot of unwelcome attention for - they were not mercenaries, they were American guys, former US servicemen themselves, they served honorably under US military and then went back to work, volunteered to go back and serve in a bodyguard or security capacity, if there is wrongdoing it can be investigated, certainly, by the military or certainly prosecuted through the US civil justice system.
SS: What I am asking is, within Blackwater was there a hierarchy to convicted them for crimes, was there someone to tell them “This is wrong, you’re off duty” or you just waited for the State Department to tell you it’s wrong?
EP: No, no. Certainly we had internal mechanisms for policing our people for the equipment they were using, for equipment accountability, where it is supposed to be, for the Rules of Engagement, all the rest. But as a private company we’re not empowered to prosecute a guy. I can’t incarcerate someone, I can’t punish them. All we can do is fire them, or fine them, but beyond that we don’t have the authorities to do more than that to an individual, that is the sole realm of the government.
SS: But you said that your men were “guards, not investigators – they shoot to kill and don’t check the pulse” - that’s from your book, that’s a direct quote. What gave you the right to behave in that way?
EP: Look, they are performing a defensive mission, so… between Iraq and Afghanistan the company did more than a hundred thousand mission, protective missions, and no one in our care was ever killed or injured, and each time there was an event where our men had to use their weapons it was documented. And of all those times when they had to use their weapons, it still comes out to less than one half of 1 percent of those incidents. So the idea that they were trigger-happy is just not accurate. If they are attacked, if they are threatened, whether there’s a threat of a car bomb, a small arms ambush, sniper fire, whatever – all the things that can attack you in a warzone – they had the tools, the equipment to defend themselves or defend their protectees [sic].
SS: How do did you as a head of that organization back in those times make sure that someone you were hiring won’t be a “shoot first ask questions later” kind of a person?
EP: There are actually very detailed hiring requirements for our company, and then also to perform on those contracts. Of course, a criminal background check will be performed, we will check their service records to make sure they honorably served in the US military, most of them already were decorated for merits and for valor in combat, they have to go through psychological evaluation, and they go through hundreds of hours of additional training and qualification under our supervision and also under the supervision of State Department or the military customer before they can go out.
So it’s not that we’re just hiring people from the street. We’re hiring proven professionals, that are again tested, evaluated, stressed to make sure that they are competent and able and of good judgment to serve in those kind of situations.
SS: What about the use of drugs – we also heard that in court. Were that individual slip ups? Or did you just look the other way to let the employees blow off the steam?
EP: Well, that’s another one of those nonsense charges. We had routinely drug-tested the men. They were certainly drug tested as a part of pre-screening hiring process. Not only were normal drugs not permitted, but steroids as well, any kind of body-altering or mind-altering drugs were not permitted. It was a firing offense, and if someone was found to be using them they immediately left the company, they were fired.
SS: Did you have any incidents when you had to fire people for that?
EP: Sure. We fired people for having the wrong sight on their weapon, we fired people for having bad haircuts, we fired people for minor theft issues… We fired a lot of people because we held a very tight standard and we didn’t permit nonsense.
SS: As a former head of Blackwater back then, can you say with 100 percent certainty that you knew what went down on the ground, that you controlled the situation completely?
EP: We employed people, and people make mistakes. We as a company did a very good job - I’m confident of - of screening, vetting or training, putting people out. But if you have one bad egg out of a thousand, sure they can do a mistake or do something stupid and you fire them. Even a turbine engine, which maybe has two or three moving parts, breaks once in a while.
When you have moving parts of thousands of people, operating in a warzone under stress and in danger, they can make bad mistakes and you have to adjust. That’s the downside of employing people, not robots. Even if the robots break as well.
SS:I know, but people’s lives aren’t machines or robots.
EP: Of course not, but the same way you had to maintain an aircraft, some that aircraft breaks. Accidents can happen. We’re very competent with stress-testing, with the evaluation and with approving judgment. I mean, these are the same people that the US military had serving as recently as six months before they were out there deployed for us, so it’s the same kind of competencies, the same kind of skill sets, same kind of value system we reemployed to do that job.
SS: Erik, obviously the one incident that’s received most attention is the shooting in Nisour Square. The US military labeled the shooting “a criminal event” and “unprovoked shooting” – who should bear the brunt of the responsibility?
EP: I don’t know if the US military labeled it that at all – that might have been one person’s opinion that was given. Anytime innocent civilians are injured or killed in battle it’s a tragedy, as you see playing out in Syria on a daily basis. We have 130 000 people killed by the regime, civilians bombed in schools – that’s awful.
What happened on Nisour Square, just to give you context…there was a very dangerous time in Iraq, there were thousands of attacks on a daily basis, across the country, one of our helicopters was shot down just a few days before, two other small arms ambushes put some of our men into a hospital, big roadside bomb attack… That morning started with a suicide car bomb, which blew up outside of a venue where a State Department person was at the meeting. We then sent a support team to clear one of the traffic circles, making it possible for the team to get that person back to safety, and while they were waiting there some cars didn’t stop, didn’t obey all the Rules of Engagement – there were flashing lights, sirens, even a laser beam that should shine, even warning shots. The car kept coming, so shots were fired to stop that car, and then other small arms fire starts hitting our vehicles.
The reason the guys stayed there so long is because one of the incoming rounds actually severed the radiator hose at the bottom of the truck and the radiator fluid drained out, causing them to stay much longer.
So there was lots of incoming rounds and certainly the men had to defend themselves. Any time innocent civilian is injured or killed, it’s a tragedy.
SS: Do you personally feel any remorse for the dead innocent victims? I understand it’s the war, I get that, but still, you are a human being after all – do you feel any remorse for that?
EP: Sure, I feel great remorse for the 41 of our men which were killed in action doing the work between Iraq and Afghanistan. I feel bad for the Iraqi or the Afghan people, who are suffering under war…
SS: Your men weren’t civilians, just walking around or passing by. Your men were contracted military workers. We’re talking about the civilian casualties.
EP: Correct, and unfortunately, there were thousands of Iraqi civilians killed before that event, and tens of thousands killed after that. Trying to work in a country that’s a very active warzone, when the country is ripping itself apart. Unfortunately there’s a lot of people suffering, and going and trying to help that situation.
Sometimes accidents can happen, but there’s been tens of thousands of people killed by suicide car bombs, by militias, by them killing each other, the same still happening in Syria, I mean, there is an untold human suffering happening on a daily basis in Syria every day.
SS: But you are a serious private military firm, you are not suicide car bombers. What about the US government? Do you feel like the US government used you as a scapegoat to avoid responsibility, in terms that “yeah, these guys went nuts and shot people, and we will prosecute them just because they are private firm”?
EP: In the Vietnam war the anti-war left went after the US troops and this time the anti-war left went after any contractors serving in that mission. You know I was a sole owner of the company, I was a Navy SEAL, I came from a conservative Republican family, my father was very wealthy, and our men were armed, and we are the largest weapons training facility in the country, privately-owned, so we made a perfect target to go after, and we really got caught in the politics of the left versus right.
The left were trying to go after George Bush and his policies. Unfortunately we were victim of this kind of tectonic plates grinding against each other.
SS: But do you feel betrayed by your government, that’s what I’m asking, because you served them after all?
EP: Building your business based on the merits, winning competitively bid contracts, performing well, doing 100,000 missions with no one in our care killed or injured, and then having it trashed because of politics – yeah, let’s say that you don’t want to go through that again.
SS: When the Nisour story broke out, I remember the government gave you sort of a limited immunity – they immunized you, and then all of a sudden it all changed. What happened there?
EP: That’s the politics of Congress in Washington and that’s why I moved on, I sold all of the Blackwater-related businesses. I am now the chairman of a company based in Hong Kong. We’re building out the Navy Logistics capability to provide secure logistics for mining or energy companies, infrastructure companies doing business in Africa or in other frontier markets.
SS: Getting back to diplomatic security – you’ve said that on many instances you regret working for the State Department, but you took so much pride in working for them…
SS: Would you do this again?
EP: No. If I had to do it all over again I would have stayed in the oil and gas industry or mining and build a business that way. Again, I never set out to really be a defense contractor, I build a training facility that performed really well, and we kept answering the phone when the US government called that it needed help, and in the end we were kind of betrayed politically and thrown under the bus.
SS: Some claim that Blackwater was involved with US special forces in Pakistan and in Syria – these are countries that US isn’t officially at war with. Is it like you were doing a dirty work for them?
EP: I sold the business back in 2010, and I’ve had nothing to do with it since then, so I can’t speak to any involvement in Pakistan and certainly not in Syria.
SS: What about the CIA contracts that were out in 2009?
EP: If you read the last chapter of my book, there’s a reason it is written by a third party. The work that I did or the company did has been leaked many times by politicians that talk too much - you can read through the detail there. But in tradition with a guy named Bill Donovan – who is the founder of the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA - he believed that there a lot to be gained from using civilian capability, from the know-how of Americans that have a capability, courage and know how to do things in difficult places and so I try to continue that tradition.
SS: You personally – do you believe the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan were necessary or just a business opportunity?
EP: Look, 9/11 really damaged the American psyche, when you have two tallest buildings in New York and the Pentagon, and even a fourth aircraft trying to attack simultaneously. Sure the Taliban were hosting Al-Qaeda, and they wouldn’t reject them. The Afghanistan War was absolutely necessary. In hindsight it probably should have been more of a punitive raid, and then leave, not stay for 12 years. Iraq, again – you have a state sponsor who is willing to use chemical weapons on its own people…
SS: But there were no chemical weapons found.
EP: Well, there were some, and I still believe they are out there.
SS: What about now? Blackwater, as it was formerly called is staying behind in Afghanistan after the US troops leave. Are they just the army’s Trojan horse? I know you are not the head anymore, but I’m sure you have the answer to that.
EP: Look, they would be an embassy there, they will be some kind of training or support function left behind, I’m sure, for the Afghans, because they need logistics support, combat service support, aviation support for the Afghan army to try to continue to defend the country.
So there will certainly be a role for the private sector companies to do that, private sector companies played a significant role in American National security really since the founding of this country.
SS: Why do you think the Private Military contractors are so widely used nowadays – do you even think of modern war as possible without mercenaries?
EP: When you look back at the military history, for the last 2,000 years contractors, mercenaries if you will, have been very much interlaced into those fabrics. Nowadays when you have big conventional militaries built to fight conventional fights - the US military was built to square off against the Soviet Union over Western Europe - but when you take that conventional military and now try to re-task it as a counter-insurgency force it creates a lot of gaps, and that’s the kind of private sector stuff.
You can call - I mean, If you want - say, mercenaries would be cooks cleaners, or guys that do laundry or deliver your mail, or drive trucks. There’s a lot of private sector functions, and one of the by-products of modern capitalism is seeking the most efficient way to deliver a service, and in that sense the US military figured its cheaper for us to hire a contractor to do the laundry or to cook the food, then it is to have 1,000 or 2,000 extra US soldiers at a much higher cost basis to do that job.
SS: You weren’t exactly cooking food or doing laundry…
EP: Whether its laundry, or security, or fixing an aircraft, or operating a drone, whatever those narrow skill sets are, they have to be quickly assembled to do. The other thing, and I’ve given this example before, I talk about it in my book as well - we took over through a competitive bid, the vertical replenishment mission, which is when you embark a helicopter on a supply ship, our helicopter, and it flies from supply ship over to warship, wherever those ships are out in the sea. And we showed up to do that job with two helicopters and eight guys.
The Navy that we replaced was doing that with two helicopters and 35 guys, same kind of helicopters, really, and so the problem is the Navy admiral that said “I need 35 men to do that mission” isn’t having to pay for those, so that’s the danger of separating cost from demand and you tend to demand a lot more people.
SS: Ah, so now we’re getting back to the beginning of the show, where I told you that you were hired because the US military wasn’t as efficient as a private military firm. Turns out – yes.
EP: We’re not out of business, as I often told my employees, we are a line item in the Federal budget, if we don’t convince our customers to hire us, if we don’t add the value and save the money then we’re done. So the private sector will always find a more innovated way to do things.
SS: Why not privatize t he military altogether?
EP: The realm of offensive combat operation should remain the realm of the state, but the support functions, which they really spend a lot of their money on, can be done effectively, and a lot of that is done now.
SS: I don’t want to end on a dire note, but you are very proud of what you’ve achieved, you explained many times why, and you argued very well. But for people in general, Blackwater thrived on the conflict and misery. Did it ever bother you, if you look at it that way.
EP: No. We used to build the Afghan Border Police, we built the bases, we ran the bases, we trained tens of thousands of Afghan policemen, border police. We had to adjust our schedule because these guys couldn’t read, they couldn’t write, they’d never seen a flush toilet before, many of them.
So to take them trough that, for eight weeks we had them in those programs, and by the end of it they were so proud, because it was the first time they’ve ever been part of something first-class in their life. When they woke up in the morning, there was hot food waiting and there was fuel for the vehicles and the instructors knew what they were teaching, and there was ammunition for the guns and the curriculum they could learn from.
Again, these guys have never been to middle school or high school, but they went to our program and they definitely benefited from that and we made them into competent police officers that could operate and survive. They were enormously proud of that, and I said at their graduation “We are here, because 30 years of constant war in Afghanistan is enough and we’re happy to help make peace.”
And you have to have a security presence, you have to have a security before you can have peace and before those people can go from thinking very short term, because they are not sure they are going to live for another week or two into planting a farm, growing a flock, starting their business and living a normal peaceful life, and we’re happy to be part of that solution.