The meteoric rise of Blackwater

By Laurie Bennett

October 3, 2007 at 7:42am

Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, trained to remain cool in the most stressful of situations, was unflappable during his congressional testimony yesterday.

In an appearance before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, he expertly defended his company’s activities in Iraq, where about 1,000 Blackwater guards protect U.S. diplomats and other State Department employees. He described Blackwater as “a team of dedicated professionals” who “risk their lives to protect Americans in harm’s way overseas.”

Prince, a former Navy SEAL, founded Blackwater in 1997. In the early years of operation, the firm did limited business with the U.S. government. However, company fortunes shifted dramatically after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the onset of war in Iraq. By last year, federal contracts totalled $600 million, primarily from protection services provided to the State Department.

Yet Prince, the son of a wealthy Michigan industrialist and brother of former Michigan Republican Party chair Betsy DeVos, said family connections had nothing to do with his success. Questioned about how his company landed a $332 million State Department contract in 2004, he said that neither he nor members of his family contacted the White House for help.

He was also questioned about campaign contributions totalling more than $200,000 to Republican committees and candidates.

“Yes, I’ve given individual political contributions,” said Prince, who was a White House intern during the George H.W. Bush administration. “I’ve done that since I was in college and I did that when I was in the military, and I will probably continue doing that going forward. I didn’t give that up when I became a military contractor.”

Prince would not release profit figures for Blackwater, noting that it is a private company. He said his own earnings last year exceeded $1 million.

The committee hearing was sparked by a Sept. 16 confrontation in which Blackwater employees shot and killed at least 11 Iraqis. Because the shootings are under criminal investigation, Prince and other witnesses were asked not to discuss them yesterday.

In prepared testimony, however, Prince defended his employees. “Based on everything we currently know,” he said, “the Blackwater team acted appropriately while operating in a very complex war zone on Sept. 16.”

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