Erik Prince, the former Blackwater CEO and notorious US Navy SEAL veteran, may seem like a relic of the past. His name, like the private security agency he headed, was tied to some of the most egregious abuses of the Bush era.
It’s unclear when Prince made his way into Trump’s inner circle, but he has made sizable contributions to the pro-Trump Political Action Committee (PAC). The Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings for the PAC shows he made a contribution of $100,000 in September 2016 to their efforts. His mother Elisa Prince also gave $50,000 to the committee.
Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos is Trump’s Secretary of Education choice. DeVos courted controversy during her hearing on January 17, when the progressive Democrat Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren grilled her over her commitment to protecting students from cheating by for-profit colleges and later wrote on her Facebook post that “I don’t see how she (DeVos) can be the secretary of education.”
The proximity of Prince — who gained notoriety after his military contracting firm killed over a dozen Iraqi civilians — to Trump is sure to ruffle some feathers.
Here’s a look back at Prince’s chequered past and why the world may have reason to worry about his closeness to the 45th president of the United States:
Blackwater’s Iraq Killings
In 2007, Prince’s private mercenary forces were accused of killing 17 Iraqis, including children, in a mass shooting that provoked global outrage and caused further strain to the relationship between Washington and Baghdad.
I put myself and my company at the CIA’s disposal for some very risky missions. But when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus. – Erik Prince, January 2010
In 2014, four Blackwater employees were tried and convicted for manslaughter and murder.
Now, nearly a decade later, the killings remain one of the darkest chapters of the US occupation of Iraq. It also led to important questions about the US Army’s reliance on private contractors, and whether outsourcing was a way to avoid oversight. Blackwater was accused of acting outside either US or Iraqi law, and even of threatening US State Department officials.
Prince sold the company in 2009. Under its new ownership, the company was twice renamed, first as XE, and later as Academi.
In his 2014 memoir, Prince claimed to divulge the entire story of Blackwater, writing in the introduction:
There is much the government doesn’t want told about the work we did: the truth about our State Department–sanctioned operational tactics in Iraq, for instance, including our rules of engagement; or Blackwater’s crucial involvement with President Obama’s ever expanding terrorist-hunting tactics in Pakistan and beyond; or even the depth of government reliance on contractors today and the outsourcing of its war machine. Government agencies don’t want that spotlight being shone on our work, nor to applaud the greatest advantage Blackwater offered them: increased capability. They want increased deniability.
Fighting Daesh and revival of CIA “assassination ring”
In an interview with the right-wing Breitbart News — owned by key Trump ally, Steve Bannon — in July 2016, Prince suggested that one way for US to destroy Daesh was to revive a controversial Vietnam War-era CIA torture and assassination campaign.
Under the Phoenix Program (between 1965 and 1972), CIA officers and the US Special Operations troops conducted torture and assassinations to target the Vietcong’s guerrilla networks in South Vietnam. The programme became one of the most notorious chapters in the agency’s history, and was officially shut down in 1972.
But Prince wants to revive it, arguing that it would help capture or kill the “funders of Islamic terror and that would even be the wealthy radical Islamist billionaires funding it from the Middle East, and any of the other illicit activities they’re in.”
It’s a shame the [Obama] administration crushed my old business, because as a private organisation, we could’ve solved the boots-on-the-ground issue, we could have had contracts from people that want to go there as contractors; you don’t have the argument of US active duty going back in there – Erik Prince, November 2013
Part of the controversy around Prince’s previous work was that private contractors were not subjected to the same kind of legal oversight and obligations as the US military.
Prince doesn’t think US troops are required on the ground to fight Daesh, but supports using “local forces” with US backing — a strategy that could potentially open the door to further lucrative contracts.
Refugees entering Europe from Libya
Earlier this month, Erik Prince wrote a dispatch in The Financial Times arguing that he has a solution to prevent refugees from entering Europe.
Prince proposed “base camps” for Libyan militias, who would receive ten weeks training and be armed with surveillance drones and armed vehicles. He also wants to be involved in building a new border fence in Libya.
The border police, as he sees it, would work with Western private contractors from “a European law enforcement background.” The air operations would likewise be outsourced to private contractors, as would the medical evacuation services.
“There would be nowhere for migrant smugglers to hide: they can be detected, detained and handled using a mixture of air and ground operations,” he wrote.
The border police I established in Afghanistan used a similar private-public partnership. Border security, coupled with a wide-ranging redevelopment plan, is the only solution for Libya. – Erik Prince, January 2017
Critics, including author Belen Fernandez, argue the plan is aimed at making financial gains from people’s miseries. Many Libyan militias already have a poor track record in their treatment of refugees.
“One thing is for certain, though: that Prince’s ‘solutions’ aren’t aimed at any sort of resolution but rather at the perpetuation of strife in the interest of financial gain,” she argued.
UAE’s Mercenary Fighters
In 2011, Erik Prince reportedly created a secret desert force of Colombian mercenaries for the UAE. The New York Times reported that the Colombians had entered the oil-rich country posing as construction workers. According to the paper, the soldiers were part of a secret US-led mercenary army being built by Erik Prince with $529 million from the Gulf emirate.
Quoting documents, the paper reported that, “the force intended to conduct special operations missions inside and outside the country, defend oil pipelines and skyscrapers from terrorist attacks and put down internal revolts.”
Quelling pro-democracy protests or the unrest in the UAE labour camps was part of the 800-strong battalion’s job. In 2015, the New York Times reported that the UAE dispatched the same mercenary force to Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels.
Working with Putin
Prince sees Russian President Vladimir Putin as a strong ally for Washington in their fight against the “common enemy” of “Islamic extremism”. Trump has made similar statements.
In an interview with Breitbart News last year, Prince said: “Do we want a leader exactly like Putin in America? No. Do we want their political system? No way. But Trump is right, in at least that we can work with Putin, because we have a common enemy, and that is Islamic fascism.”
Do we agree with them on everything? No way. Russia is wrong on Ukraine, and Crimea. But working with them to defeat Islamic radicalism is something we should do.
There are, however, fears that Trump would be reorienting American foreign policy in a pro-Russian direction and that US allies will stop sharing intelligence under Russia-friendly Trump.
These days, Erik Prince provides the Chinese with everything from men to machinery to security and logistical backing, helping them get to in and out of some of the most risky areas of the African continent.
In an interview with Bloomberg, Prince said his new company, Frontier Services Group Ltd, is actively aiding Beijing:
We help people get their projects up and running and once they’re up, keep them running. We get busy when things are good in Africa and we stay busy when things are sometimes not good. – Erik Prince, May 2015
China may have poached a former US operative but Prince argues his company is simply “on the side of peace and economic development.”
Columnist James Poulos sums up Prince’s transition in a Forbes article in January 2014, “A big-government military-industrial complex, too clumsy and fearful to take on its own toughest security challenges, can’t take the heat when the guy it hires to do so makes a mess — so it proceeds to clumsily and fearfully flog him out of Washington. What happens? Blowback, that favorite word of American foreign-policy critics.”
Poulos argued that it will be hard to guess just “how dismaying an impact on Africa China will have with Erik Prince at its side. But it’s hard to see how any American can be happy with these latest fruits of our Blackwater experience.”
Behind-the-scenes support to Trump
Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos is Trump’s Secretary of Education choice.
According to an investigation by The Intercept, Prince has been advising Trump on security issues behind the scenes for some time now.
The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that Prince attended the annual “Villains and Heroes” costume ball in December, hosted by Rebekah Mercer. She is the daughter of billionaire hedge funder Robert Mercer, who is one of the strongest bankrollers of Trump’s campaign.
Dowd wrote that Peter Thiel, a staunch supporter of Trump showed her “a picture on his phone of him posing with Erik Prince, who founded the private military company Blackwater, and Mr. Trump — who had no costume — but joke[d] that it was ‘NSFI’ (Not Safe for the Internet).”
With the mantra of “countering Islamic extremism” as his battle cry, Prince supported the rise of Trump as the US president who would battle “terrorists” and “fascists.”
“As for the world looking to the United States for leadership, unfortunately, I think they’re going to have to wait till January and hope Mr. Trump is elected because, clearly, our generals don’t have a stomach for a fight. Our President doesn’t have a stomach for a fight and the terrorists, the facists, are winning,” Prince said in an interview last year.
Behind the discourse lies a clear economic interest — Prince literally backs theft of Iraqi oil. He believes Trump’s idea to take Iraq’s oil as repayment for deposing Saddam Hussein “is not a bad one”:
You could easily double that, or triple that, so for Mr. Trump to say, ‘We’re going to take their oil’ – certainly we’re not going to lift it out of there and take it somewhere else, but putting it into production, and putting a tolling arrangement into place, to repay the American taxpayers for their efforts to remove Saddam and to stabilize the area, is doable, and very plausible. – Erik Prince, September 2016
And should the Trump administration attempt to enforce such a policy in Iraq, it seems likely Prince would want to have in on that too.