Despite its recent attempt to rebrand itself as Xe Services, Blackwater, the private military empire of Erik Prince, has struggled under a growing weight of allegations surrounding its conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now further questions have been raised by claims it was subcontracted by the CIA during the George Bush presidency to run an unrealised campaign of assassinations of al-Qaida leaders kept secret from Congress.
The claims come hard on the heels of the allegations made in sworn affidavits to a federal court in Virginia earlier this month by two former Blackwater employees that Prince may have had a role in the murder of individuals co-operating with a US government investigation into the company.
While the allegations of the two men cannot be verified independently, the combination of the two affairs — on top of Blackwater’s already notorious reputation from Iraq — has added a Robert Ludlumesque aura of intrigue to a secretive company named after the US Navy Seals name for a ”black op”.
Prince has had to contend with widely reported allegations — contained in the sworn statements — that he ”views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe”.
In addition, one of the two anonymous witnesses — who asked for protection because they said they were afraid of Blackwater — has also accused the company, which earned more than $1-billion in US government contracts, of smuggling weapons into Iraq and the destruction of incriminating evidence.
Although Xe has denied the allegations, the claims this month are only the latest controversies to have dogged Prince and his company, which has been accused of everything from deceiving the US state department to encouraging its operatives to kill Iraqi civilians.
Although the wealthy Prince founded the company in 1997, the name Blackwater only became imprinted on the public consciousness after the war in Iraq. It gained a reputation for being trigger-happy and ruthless, and soon gained the nickname ”Ditchwater” from some British security guards.
The company was finally expelled by the Iraqi government, which refused to renew its licence, although some Xe employees still work there for the state department under the auspices of the so-called US Training Centre.
The company’s rapid emergence as one of the world’s biggest private military contractors benefited from Prince’s Republican connections (he was a donor to Bush) and the revolving door recruitment policy for Pentagon and CIA officials. Prince himself is reported to have been close to top officials in the CIA’s directorate of operations and was a regular visitor to its headquarters.
And it was his political connections that opened the doors.
The son of Edgar Prince, a wealthy Republican from Michigan who was one of the founders of the rightwing Family Research Council in the 1980s, Erik Prince had served as an intern to President George Bush Sr before joining the elite Navy Seals for four years, leaving the navy on the death of his father in 1996.
With his inheritance, Prince bought the land in North Carolina that would be transformed into Blackwater’s training base, complete with sniper training facilities. This was made available for the training of CIA officers — an organisation with which Prince had high-level contacts — as well as for the training of his private army.
It was in 2002 that Prince and his company finally hit paydirt, securing contracts to protect US government personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, two-thirds of which were awarded on a no-bid basis.
And after the fall of Baghdad, Blackwater suddenly became the most visible private military contractor in Iraq, its bandana-wearing, muscular employees riding shotgun on the convoys they protected with no interest in keeping a low profile. Described once as ”mercenaries”, Prince countered they were ”loyal Americans”.
Despite growing uneasiness among many observers about Blackwater’s methods, not least after a March 2004 ambush in which four Blackwater guards were killed and their bodies hung from one of the town’s bridges, it was an incident in 2007 that sealed its notoriety.
Four of its empoyees shot dead 17 Iraqi civilians — 14 of whom the FBI concluded were killed ”without cause”. And it was not an isolated incident. In 2005 Blackwater guards accompanying a US diplomat fired scores of rounds into an Iraqi car, while in 2006 a drunken Blackwater employee killed an Iraqi security guard for the country’s vice-president. The guard responsible was flown by the company out of Iraq.
A congressional subcommittee report in 2007 described the company as being staffed by reckless guards — not always sober — who would shoot first and not stop to see who they had shot. The same report alleged that Blackwater guards had been engaged in more than 200 shooting incidents in two years, largely from moving vehicles.
It was not only in Iraq that Blackwater had a controversial presence. In the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina, heavily armed Blackwater guards were controversially deployed in New Orleans by the department of homeland security to confront armed looters.
The revelation that the CIA had allegedly subcontracted Blackwater into an abortive programme to undertake killings of al-Qaida figures adds further weight to the evidence that the company’s real ambition was to take over military and intelligence functions.
That ambition was allegedly alluded to by Cofer Black, director of the CIA’s counter-terrorism centre until 2002, and later the department of state’s co-ordinator for counter-terrorism, who joined Blackwater in 2005 as vice-chairman. At a conference in Amman in 2006, in comments Black has subsequently denied, he was alleged to have suggested that Blackwater was in a position to provide a brigade-sized group to support humanitarian missions.
Despite the controversies, Blackwater continues to benefit from US government contracts under Barack Obama’s presidency. Under Obama the numbers of private military contractors have increased in Afghanistan by almost 30% — the company once known as Blackwater among them. — guardian.co.uk