Following the indictment of five former Blackwater contractors last week, Erik Prince, the company's founder and CEO, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal today to defend his company. What he says is less important that the fact that he's saying it at all.
In the past, the firm has responded to damaging news with silence. This is due in part to the firm's contractual obligation to avoid discussing its work for the State Department with the press, but also to the tight-lipped sensibility of the company itself. When it comes to the latter, I have it from two sources that Mother Jones has a little something to do with Blackwater's bunker mentality.
On assignment for MoJo in 2003, Barry Yeoman was granted access to Blackwater's Moyock, North Carolina training facility. Among the more controversial things he reported, at least in the eyes of Blackwater execs, was this:
Last fall, Blackwater signed a $35.7 million contract with the Pentagon to train more than 10,000 sailors from Virginia, Texas, and California each year in "force protection." Other contracts are so secret, says Blackwater president Gary Jackson, that he can't tell one federal agency about the business he's doing with another.
As I understand it, Blackwater did not want to be seen talking out of school about its super-secret projects—or even alluding to them—and may have decided that it was better to say nothing then risk inconvenient disclosures. But since the September 2007 Nisour Square shooting, which left more than a dozen Iraqis dead and placed Blackwater in the crosshairs of Congress and the Justice Department, the company has slowly emerged from its cone of silence. Prior to testifying before Congress that October, Prince was prepped extensively by PR and crisis management specialists and the famously private Blackwater founder held his own before a congressional panel eager to score political points. Since then, Prince's once rare media appearances and interviews have become more frequent and the company has been more vocal about defending its actions and operators. The company's recent PR strategy has included launching a media relations site containing fact-sheets ("Myth vs. Fact" [PDF]), position papers ("A Side-by-Side Examination of Military vs. Contractor Compensation" [PDF]), and press releases ("Blackwater Statement on Indictments of Former Contractors" [PDF]). In the end, though, Blackwater's work in Iraq delivered such a blow to the company's rep that is has begun shifting its operations away from the security and protection work that has brought it international opprobrium, refocusing on the training work that the company was founded on. (Blackwater is also maneuvering itself into what could soon be a booming market for anti-piracy ops [PDF] in the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere.)
Writing in the Journal, Prince doesn't dwell on the indictment of his contractors—nor does he go out of his way to defend their actions. (\As recently as last week, the company maintained that its men were in the right. "Based on the information available to us," Blackwater said in a statement, "we understand that these individuals acted within the rules set forth for them by the government and that no criminal violations occurred.") Rather, Prince concentrates on dispelling "the often mischaracterized role of security contractors in this unique war."
Then and now, Blackwater personnel encounter myriad potential or actual hostile acts on a daily basis. Enemies attack with rocket-propelled grenades, sniper fire and car bombs. Responding to these attacks often requires split-second decisions, and so Blackwater's contracts include detailed rules for the use of force. Our teams operate under a government-prescribed process that involves a series of visual and audible signals to distinguish between approaching civilian motorists and insurgents attempting to get close enough to a convoy to ignite a car bomb.
Prince also takes the opportunity to fire back at Blackwater's critics, whom he accuses of throwing around "inaccurate labels." (Though he does not specify, I assume he's referring to the term "mercenary," a label, along with "private military company," that seriously ticks off the industry.) Addressing Blackwater's detractors, Prince writes: "I doubt they have ever known one of our contractors personally or been protected by them. Our teams are not cooking meals or moving supplies. They are taking bullets." They are also firing them—indiscriminately, according to the government's case against the Blackwater contractors involved in the Nisour Square incident. Whether or not Prince's men are vindicated—and one of them has already pleaded guilty—don't expect him to bite his tongue, as he would have done in the past. Nowadays, when his company comes under fire, he'll surely fire back.