I put myself and my company at the C.I.A.’s disposal for some very risky missions,” says Erik Prince as he surveys his heavily fortified, 7,000-acre compound in rural Moyock, North Carolina. “But when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus.” Prince—the founder of Blackwater, the world’s most notorious private military contractor—is royally steamed. He wants to vent. And he wants you to hear him vent.
Erik Prince has an image problem—the kind that’s impervious to a Madison Avenue makeover. The 40-year-old heir to a Michigan auto-parts fortune, and a former navy seal, he has had the distinction of being vilified recently both in life and in art. In Washington, Prince has become a scapegoat for some of the Bush administration’s misadventures in Iraq—though Blackwater’s own deeds have also come in for withering criticism. Congressmen and lawyers, human-rights groups and pundits, have described Prince as a war profiteer, one who has assembled a rogue fighting force capable of toppling governments. His employees have been repeatedly accused of using excessive, even deadly force in Iraq; many Iraqis, in fact, have died during encounters with Blackwater. And in November, as a North Carolina grand jury was considering a raft of charges against the company, as a half-dozen civil suits were brewing in Virginia, and as five former Blackwater staffers were preparing for trial for their roles in the deaths of 17 Iraqis, The New York Times reported in a page-one story that Prince’s firm, in the aftermath of the tragedy, had sought to bribe Iraqi officials for their compliance, charges which Prince calls “lies … undocumented, unsubstantiated [and] anonymous.” (So infamous is the Blackwater brand that even the Taliban have floated far-fetched conspiracy theories, accusing the company of engaging in suicide bombings in Pakistan.)
In Hollywood, meanwhile, a town that loves nothing so much as a good villain, Prince, with his blond crop and Daniel Craig mien, has become the screenwriters’ darling. In the film State of Play, a Blackwater clone (PointCorp.) uses its network of mercenaries for illegal surveillance and murder. On the Fox series 24, Jon Voight has played Jonas Hodges, a thinly veiled version of Prince, whose company (Starkwood) helps an African warlord procure nerve gas for use against U.S. targets.
But the truth about Prince may be orders of magnitude stranger than fiction. For the past six years, he appears to have led an astonishing double life. Publicly, he has served as Blackwater’s C.E.O. and chairman. Privately, and secretly, he has been doing the C.I.A.’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. Prince, according to sources with knowledge of his activities, has been working as a C.I.A. asset: in a word, as a spy. While his company was busy gleaning more than $1.5 billion in government contracts between 2001 and 2009—by acting, among other things, as an overseas Praetorian guard for C.I.A. and State Department officials—Prince became a Mr. Fix-It in the war on terror. His access to paramilitary forces, weapons, and aircraft, and his indefatigable ambition—the very attributes that have galvanized his critics—also made him extremely valuable, some say, to U.S. intelligence. (Full disclosure: In the 1990s, before becoming a journalist for CBS and then NBC News, I was a C.I.A. attorney. My contract was not renewed, under contentious circumstances.)
But Prince, with a new administration in power, and foes closing in, is finally coming in from the cold. This past fall, though he infrequently grants interviews, he decided it was time to tell his side of the story—to respond to the array of accusations, to reveal exactly what he has been doing in the shadows of the U.S. government, and to present his rationale. He also hoped to convey why he’s going to walk away from it all.
To that end, he invited Vanity Fair to his training camp in North Carolina, to his Virginia offices, and to his Afghan outposts. It seemed like a propitious time to tag along.
Erik Prince can be a difficult man to wrap your mind around—an amalgam of contradictory caricatures. He has been branded a “Christian supremacist” who sanctions the murder of Iraqi civilians, yet he has built mosques at his overseas bases and supports a Muslim orphanage in Afghanistan. He and his family have long backed conservative causes, funded right-wing political candidates, and befriended evangelicals, but he calls himself a libertarian and is a practicing Roman Catholic. Sometimes considered arrogant and reclusive—Howard Hughes without the O.C.D.—he nonetheless enters competitions that combine mountain-biking, beach running, ocean kayaking, and rappelling.
The common denominator is a relentless intensity that seems to have no Off switch. Seated in the back of a Boeing 777 en route to Afghanistan, Prince leafs through Defense News while the film Taken beams from the in-flight entertainment system. In the movie, Liam Neeson plays a retired C.I.A. officer who mounts an aggressive rescue effort after his daughter is kidnapped in Paris. Neeson’s character warns his daughter’s captors:
If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills … skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you [don’t] let my daughter go now … I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
Prince comments, “I used that movie as a teaching tool for my girls.” (The father of seven, Prince remarried after his first wife died of cancer in 2003.) “I wanted them to understand the dangers out there. And I wanted them to know how I would respond.”
You can’t escape the impression that Prince sees himself as somehow destined, his mission anointed. It comes out even in the most personal of stories. During the flight, he tells of being in Kabul in September 2008 and receiving a two a.m. call from his wife, Joanna. Prince’s son Charlie, one year old at the time, had fallen into the family swimming pool. Charlie’s brother Christian, then 12, pulled him out of the water, purple and motionless, and successfully performed CPR. Christian and three siblings, it turns out, had recently received Red Cross certification at the Blackwater training camp.
But there are intimations of a higher power at work as the story continues. Desperate to get home, Prince scrapped one itinerary, which called for a stay-over at the Marriott in Islamabad, and found a direct flight. That night, at the time Prince would have been checking in, terrorists struck the hotel with a truck bomb, killing more than 50. Prince says simply, “Christian saved Charlie’s life and Charlie saved mine.” At times, his sense of his own place in history can border on the evangelical. When pressed about suggestions that he’s a mercenary—a term he loathes—he rattles off the names of other freelance military figures, even citing Lafayette, the colonists’ ally during the Revolutionary War.
Prince’s default mode is one of readiness. He is clenched-jawed and tightly wound. He cannot stand down. Waiting in the security line at Dulles airport just hours before, Prince had delivered a little homily: “Every time an American goes through security, I want them to pause for a moment and think, What is my government doing to inconvenience the terrorists? Rendition teams, Predator drones, assassination squads. That’s all part of it.”
Such brazenness is not lost on a listener, nor is the fact that Prince himself is quite familiar with some of these tactics. In fact Prince, like other contractors, has drawn fire for running a company that some call a “body shop”—many of its staffers having departed military or intelligence posts to take similar jobs at much higher salaries, paid mainly by Uncle Sam. And to get those jobs done—protecting, defending, and killing, if required—Prince has had to employ the services of some decorated vets as well as some ruthless types, snipers and spies among them.
Erik Prince flies coach internationally. It’s not just economical (“Why should I pay for business? Fly coach, you arrive at the same time”) but also less likely to draw undue attention. He considers himself a marked man. Prince describes the diplomats and dignitaries Blackwater protects as “Al Jazeera–worthy,” meaning that, in his view, “bin Laden and his acolytes would love to kill them in a spectacular fashion and have it broadcast on televisions worldwide.”
Stepping off the plane at Kabul’s international airport, Prince is treated as if he, too, were Al Jazeera–worthy. He is immediately shuffled into a waiting car and driven 50 yards to a second vehicle, a beat-up minivan that is native to the core: animal pelts on the dashboard, prayer card dangling from the rearview mirror. Blackwater’s special-projects team is responsible for Prince’s security in-country, and except for their language its men appear indistinguishable from Afghans. They have full beards, headscarves, and traditional knee-length shirts over baggy trousers. They remove Prince’s sunglasses, fit him out with body armor, and have him change into Afghan garb. Prince is issued a homing beacon that will track his movements, and a cell phone with its speed dial programmed for Blackwater’s tactical-operations center.