"I believe there is significant overreach by the NSA in how it monitors American citizens," said Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the security contractor that became synonymous with counter-terrorism excess after its operatives killed 17 Iraqis and wounded 20 more at a traffic roundabout in Baghdad in 2007.
Speaking at Philadelphia's free library on Friday morning to about 100 people to promote his new memoir, Prince accused the American left of hypocrisy over the surveillance revelations published by the Guardian, the Washington Post and others based on leaks from Edward Snowden.
Had James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, misled the Senate about the scope of domestic surveillance under the Bush administration, "people would be screaming for impeachment," Prince said, in response to a question from the Guardian.
Prince, a former US navy Seal and CIA partner, made headlines earlier this week by telling the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake that the so-called 'war on terror' had gone too far, threatening Americans’ freedom as much as it provided American security.
"Let's stop trading freedom for the illusion of security," Prince said on Friday. When citizens tell the government "we trust you, keep collecting" their data, Prince said, "that liberty erodes even more."
For all Blackwater's notoriety – its killing of civilians in Nisour Square and in Afghanistan; its multiple front companies; its intimacy with the CIA – Prince said the company, which used to protect US diplomats in warzones, could have made a difference in last year's attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
"I'm confident if we had been on the job in Benghazi, Ambassador Stevens would still be alive," Prince said. No US diplomats, Prince pointed out, died under Blackwater's protection. "They depended on basically a local militia, a company that hired local Libyans – unvetted, untrained – and even ill-equipped," Prince said.
Prince said that the consulate took fire from "a very, very professional mortar team, which I believe to be Iranian Quds Force, an Iranian special-operations team. To get on target with three or four mortar rounds in an area … you don't do that. That takes some skill." No investigation of Benghazi has made that accusation.
While Prince said he would not grant an interview on Friday, he did respond to a question about his recent whereabouts. Despite decamping for the United Arab Emirates in 2010 after Blackwater's fall from official favor, Prince said he now splits his time between the US and the UAE, a situation he said he began "in time for school," as his children are now educated in the United States.
Blackwater guards were accused of killing 17 Iraqis in Baghdad in 2007.
By any accounting, Prince’s life has been picaresque.
Son of a Michigan family that made a fortune from auto parts and had influence in the Republican party, Prince was a navy Seal before founding Blackwater, initially a training center in North Carolina for military and law enforcement. The years after 9/11 turned Blackwater into a cash cow – all through government contracting. Through contracts to protect diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as military deals, the company parlayed a $737,000 relationship with the federal government in 2001 to $593.6m in contracting by 2006.
It also became mired in controversy. Blackwater contractors in Iraq, subsequent statements to various courts asserted, held cocaine-fueled parties and made extensive use of steroids. One contractor in Afghanistan, working for a Blackwater shell company called Paravant, signed for more than 200 AK-47s from a US military depot by giving the name Eric Cartman, a character from South Park. Between 2005 and 2007, Blackwater contractors in Iraq were involved in an average of 1.4 shooting incidents per week, according to statistics compiled by a House committee. After Nisour Square, Blackwater was the subject of myriad investigations, prosecutions and damages lawsuits.
But Blackwater was also a cutout entity for the CIA, providing intelligence operatives with a logistics and transportation operation, even assistance with drone strikes in Pakistan. Former top CIA officials such as Cofer Black and Robert Richer ran Blackwater’s in-house intelligence arm. The relationship was outed by leaks to the press in 2010 that said the agency hired Blackwater to aid in an assassination program that ostensibly never matured. An embittered Prince publicly asserted, in a glowing Vanity Fair profile, that the agency threw him “under the bus”.
That began Prince’s self-imposed exile. He sold his company, already rebranded Xe, to a group of investors who renamed it Academi. Then Prince took the extraordinary step of fleeing the US for the UAE, where, he told Men’s Journal, he would work in the “energy sector” – not to mention make it “harder for the jackals to get my money.”
Quickly, Prince appeared to get back to his old business. The New York Times reported that Prince inserted himself into a venture to provide paid auxiliaries to combat Somali insurgents and pirates; and that a new Prince company, R2, was equipping the UAE government with a private army.
In Philadelphia, Prince sidestepped talk of any new security contracting, describing his new venture, the Abu Dhabi-based Frontier Resource Group, as a "traditional private equity fund" focused on Africa.
"We invest in energy, mining, agriculture, and logistics opportunity throughout Africa," Prince said.
"We're very excited about Africa – it can be the breadbasket of the world. There's an enormous amount of economic development being done there, and Africa's really waking up to the opportunities, and we're on the leading edge out there trying to make it happen."
Calm throughout the hour-long talk, Prince defended Blackwater's legacy, even on Nisour Square. He suggested that Blackwater contractors might not have been responsible for all of the 17 deaths that day, claiming that "some were killed by AK-47" gunfire, "not a US weapon." The AK-47 is not an American-made weapon, nor is it in US military use, but Blackwater/Paravant guards have taken them in Afghanistan, according to a Senate investigation in 2010.
"Anytime innocent civilians are killed, it's a tragedy," Prince said, but defended his guards' performance that day in 2007. "Sometimes motorists do irrational things."
Outside the library, a group of protesters, including one in a death's head mask, called Prince a war criminal.
"I understand the need for discourse," said Aine Fox, one of the demonstrators. But Fox, who lives in Philadelphia, said it was "very disappointing that the Free Library chose to give a war criminal a forum to talk about business when his business is death."