Blackwater founder speaks at Michigan economic club

GRAND RAPIDS -- To Blackwater Worldwide founder Erik Prince, the use of private security firms in a troubled world makes perfect sense.

"When you send something overseas, do you use FedEx or the postal service?" the ex-Navy SEAL asked an audience of about 750 on Monday at the Amway Grand Plaza.

It was a rare public appearance in West Michigan for Prince, who has presided over the controversial private security firm since its founding a decade ago.

Speaking before the Economic Club of Grand Rapids, Prince, 38, maintained private contractors have been woven through U.S. military affairs since the founding of the republic. He said contractors can do certain jobs better and faster than a government-run military.

"They have been there all through history," Prince said, citing privateers from John Paul Jones to Thaddeus Kosciuszko, head engineer of the Continental Army.

The Holland native bankrolled the North Carolina-based Blackwater with advice from another Navy SEAL, using part of a $1.35 billion inheritance that followed the 1995 death of his father, Holland industrialist Edgar Prince.

"I had the unusual ability to write a check to do this," said the often-reclusive Prince.

Security was unusually tight at the event and, at the company's request, media photos and video and audio recordings were banned. Prince did not make himself available to the media for questions.

Prince attended the U.S. Naval Academy after high school but left after three semesters. After graduating from Hillsdale College in 1992, he earned a Navy commission as a SEAL officer on deployments to the Mediterranean and Mideast.

Brother to former state GOP Chairwoman Betsy DeVos, Prince has given more than $200,000 to conservative causes since his first donation of $15,000 to the GOP at age 19.

DeVos introduced her younger brother at the speech, calling him a "tough" soldier with a "giant heart."

"Erik loves our country. As a student of history, he loves freedom," she said.

Blackwater revenues took off following the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington as the U.S. military turned more security functions over to private contractors. Since then, it has topped $1 billion in government contracts.

Blackwater has been praised by advocates for doing a difficult job under tough circumstance and condemned by critics for mercenary values and sloppy oversight.

It came under intense scrutiny in September after Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians in a Baghdad shooting incident that remains under investigation. Preliminary reports indicate the guards were not fired upon.

Blackwater is not expected to face criminal charges in the incident. A 7-month-old Justice Department investigation is focused on Blackwater guards involved in the shootings.

Despite this controversy, the State Department has renewed Blackwater's contract to provide security for American diplomats in Iraq for at least another year.

Prince did not mention the September incident. He said Blackwater has carried out about 18,000 missions without losing a client.

He said that less than one-half of 1 percent of those involved the discharge of firearms by a Blackwater security guard.

One analyst called the shooting a "hammer blow" to Blackwater that somehow had no consequences.

"I think it points to the fact that the dependence on contractors is like a drug addiction," Brookings Institute scholar Peter Singer told the New York Times.

"They just can't help themselves."

While talking about Blackwater efforts in Afghanistan, Prince failed to mention the 2004 crash there of a Blackwater plane that killed three U.S. soldiers. A subsequent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board cited Presidential Airways, a subsidiary of Blackwater, and its pilots for a series of mistakes and management oversights.

Blackwater also came under fire for an incident in December 2006, in which a Blackwater guard shot and killed a security guard to the Iraqi vice president.

According to an account from the U.S. House Oversight Committee, witnesses reported the Blackwater guard was drunk and fired several shots, striking the Iraqi guard three times before fleeing the scene.

Blackwater arranged to have the guard flown out of Iraq the following day and later reportedly paid the family of the guard $15,000.

Prince told the committee the guard, Andrew Moonen, was fired for "violating alcohol and firearm policy."

"There is a lot of talk and concern about contractors not being accountable," Prince told the audience, maintaining that they are subject to rigorous oversight.

Prince outlined the prospect of an expanded role for firms such as Blackwater, including its use in the simmering conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan.

"We are essentially a robust temp agency," Prince said, adding the firm will lose its contracts if it doesn't do its job.


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