Blackwater states its case
News Observer (2008-06-19) Jay Price and Joseph Neff
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RALEIGH - Blackwater Worldwide
, the North Carolina company that is famous -- and in some quarters infamous -- for its security work in Iraq, has been misunderstood and misrepresented, says the company's owner, Erik Prince
Prince, company President Gary Jackson and spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell came to Raleigh on Wednesday as part of a public relations campaign. The effort began last fall after Blackwater guards were accused of killing 17 civilians in Baghdad while guarding a State Department convoy. That incident, which elicited furious protests from the Iraqi government, is still under federal investigation.
The executives, who had requested the meeting with a group of News & Observer editorial board members, editors and reporters, defended their company's reputation Wednesday.
The company, which guards diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan, burst into the national consciousness in 2004 after an Iraqi mob massacred four of its contractors and hung some of their corpses from a bridge in Fallujah.
In the years since, Prince said, Blackwater has been treated unfairly in the media and by politicians who paint it as a poorly regulated outfit raking in no-bid contracts thanks to cronies. Descriptions of their guards as arrogant cowboys are out of date, and if anything, the company is heavily regulated, they said.
Prince, whose family has long been associated with the Republican Party, said politics hasn't helped the company gain contracts.
"Ninety-five percent of our revenue comes from competitively bid contracts," he said.
Jackson gave a lengthy list of federal, state and local agencies that have investigated or audited the company, from the U.S. Defense, State and Justice departments to the city of San Diego and the N.C. Department of Transportation.
"The idea that we are unaccountable, unaudited, we beg to differ," Prince said.
Blackwater guards gained a reputation in Iraq for acting aggressively and without regard for civilians -- and even the U.S. military.
Prince declined to say whether he thinks the government didn't have enough control over private security details in Iraq early in the war, but he said such oversight has increased greatly in the past three years.
He and Jackson repeatedly referred to Blackwater's safety record at its U.S. facilities, where it trains several hundred troops and law enforcement officers every day -- without a serious injury. He also cited its record in flying more than 11,000 cargo and passenger missions for the military in Afghanistan and its never having lost a diplomat on the dangerous roads of Iraq.
Such successes and the company's good deeds, such as donating time on shooting ranges to a host of local law enforcement agencies, mostly go unreported, the executives said.
At home in Moyock
The company is based on a 7,000-acre compound in Moyock, in the state's northeastern corner, with elaborate shooting ranges and a driving track. Blackwater calls it the nation's largest privately owned weapons training facility.
It now has training sites in Illinois and San Diego, has branched out to offer a range of services from aviation to construction management, and has begun building armored vehicles and small blimps. It has become one of Eastern North Carolina's largest employers.
Security contracting will likely play a shrinking role in its income, the executives said. Security work is tapering off, and the company's future is mostly in one of its other lines of work -- training troops and law enforcement officers, the men said. It is set up to train 1,250 people a day.
Prince and the company have repeatedly come under attack from Democrats in Congress. The State Department, though, recently renewed its contract with Blackwater to guard diplomats in Iraq, despite the shooting last fall and Iraqi government protests.
Asked what he thought would happen to the company's federal contracts -- more than $1 billion in revenue to date -- if a Democrat is elected president, Prince replied that Blackwater was doing great work and that was the best way to keep getting contracts.
Critic on the Hill
Among the most frequent congressional critics of security contractors has been Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill. Price has introduced bills and amendments to tighten regulations on the industry. He recently added an amendment to bar contractors from interrogating prisoners for the military.
Blackwater doesn't interrogate prisoners, Prince said.
Price also has filed a bill designed to make sure that contractors working for the U.S. government in a war zone can be brought to justice for committing crimes. The bill would mandate that Justice Department investigators be positioned in war zones so they would be able to quickly gather evidence and start prosecutions.
Prince has said he supports this bill and said Wednesday that contractors should be held accountable for breaking the law and that a good system of doing so would be good for his industry.
No publicity hound
Until the Baghdad killings in the fall, which damaged the company's reputation and imperiled multimillion-dollar federal contracts, Prince had been publicity shy.
N&O reporters had sought an interview with Prince since March 31, 2004, when four of the company's security contractors were killed by insurgents and mutilated in the city of Fallujah, Iraq. Prince said Wednesday that the State Department contract has prohibited the company from speaking out, even when it disagreed with information in stories about it.
Prince opened the meeting Wednesday by saying that the Blackwater officials had come not only to answer questions but also to correct errors in the newspaper's reporting.
"I think we've had a lot of misunderstanding from this newspaper, and I'm happy to clarify what is truth versus lies, slander and downright libel," Prince said.
The newspaper routinely writes about the company. An N&O series in 2004 on the Fallujah incident highlighted problems with the oversight of contractors on the battlefield and led to a congressional investigation.
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