Blackwater Founder Steps Aside
Erik Prince, the reclusive car-parts scion who founded the Blackwater security firm, announced today he was stepping down as the company's chief executive. He will retain his role as chairman of the board, while day to day operations will be managed by Joseph Yorio, a former Army special forces officer.
With his blond crew cut and media-shy demeanor, the 39-year-old Prince, an ex-Navy SEAL, built Blackwater in July 1996 in Myock, N.C., using $900,000 from his share of selling his father's auto-parts business. The name "Blackwater" came from the dark water found on 7,000 acres where Prince built his company, near the Great Dismal Swamp.
"This started as a field of dreams: Build it, and they will come," Prince told The Post two years ago. "It was a little success that led to another success to another success."
Blackwater's operations in Iraq have generated much controversy. In March 2004, four Blackwater contractors driving in the battered city of Fallujah were ambushed by three insurgents in a large truck. The attackers shot and killed all four contractors and fled. The following November, a plane owned by Blackwater subsidiary Presidential Airways crashed into a mountain in Afghanistan, killing three soldiers and three Blackwater contractors on a mission under a $35 million Air Force contract.
In December 2006, a Blackwater contractor got drunk and shot dead a bodyguard for Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi. Blackwater worked with the State Department to fly the contractor back to the United States and fired him. Five months later, Blackwater guards shot and killed an Iraqi driver outside the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, prompting an armed standoff between ministry commandos and the guards.
In September 2007, during a chaotic confrontation in downtown Baghdad, Blackwater contractors allegedly shot and killed 17 Iraqis in a crowded square. Charges against some of the Blackwater guards involved were filed last year. Critics argued that Blackwater was essentially a private army that acted outside traditional military and civilian jurisdictions. Others blatantly called Prince a "war profiteer."
As The Post's Robert O'Harrow Jr. and Dana Hedgpeth noted in 2007, Blackwater rose from a small fish -- making less than $100,000 per year in federal government contracts -- to an industry giant, with its government-linked revenue estimated at nearly $600 million in 2006. In August 2007, the company won its biggest deal ever, a five-year counter-narcotics training contract worth up to $15 billion shared with four other companies.
Prince's political credentials also appeared to help the company win large contracts; An intern under former President George H.W. Bush, Prince has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians, including Pat Buchanan, Oliver North, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), among others.
And Prince hired a stable of former officials from the Navy, State Department, CIA, FBI and other agencies, while maintaining a database of 40,000 contractor candidates, mostly former military and law enforcement officials, and their particular military, language, mechanical and other skills.
But, in a sign of the changing times, the firm last month changed its controversial name to Xe (pronounced "Z") as to define "what it is today and not what it used to be," as a company spokeswoman put it.
When Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) asked him during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in October 2007 to concede that Blackwater had killed innocent civilians, Prince replied: "No, sir. I disagree with that. . . . There could be ricochets. There are traffic accidents, yes. This is war."
By Derek Kravitz |
March 2, 2009; 1:56 PM ET
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