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Blackwater Head Disavows ‘Mercenary’ Label

A private security contractor at the center of a congressional probe of alleged war profiteering and misconduct objected to characterizations of his business as a “Republican” company that employs “mercenaries.”

“We are not a partisan organization,” Erik Prince, founder and CEO of Blackwater USA, said Tuesday at a hearing of the House Committee on Government Oversight.

Prince, 38, a former Navy SEAL who founded the private security business in 1997, was star witness in a public hearing over the role of for-profit contractors in war zones in general and the conduct of Blackwater, the largest private U.S. military contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular.

A multimillionaire from a powerful Michigan Republican family, Prince has reportedly donated about $300,000 to Republican candidates and political action committees. His sister, Betsy DeVos, is former chairwoman of the Republican Party of Michigan and is married to former Amway president and gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos.

Prince said Tuesday that party affiliation is not on the application for the former military and police-force workers who seek to interview with Blackwater. “We affiliate with America,” he said.

“And the idea that people call us mercenaries,” he continued. “We have Americans working for America, protecting Americans.”

“The Oxford Dictionary defines a mercenary as a professional soldier working for a foreign government,” he elaborated. “And Americans working for America is not it.” (The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines the word “one that serves merely for wages, especially a soldier hired into foreign service.”)

Prior to the war in Iraq, according to a congressional report, Blackwater primarily offered training services for law enforcement and military personnel. During the past six years, the company has diversified and expanded to provide private military contracting, receiving more than $1 billion in government contracts, about half without competitive bids.

In addition to cost, questions focused on accountability for alleged misconduct including the December 2006 killing of a guard of Iraq’s vice president by a drunken Blackwater contractor who was fired but hasn’t been prosecuted and a Sept. 10 shootout that left at least 10 Iraqis dead.

The committee memorandum said Blackwater has been involved in at least 195 “escalation of force” incidents in Iraq since 2005, an average of 1.4 shooting incidents per week, and warned that Blackwater is hurting the attitude toward U.S. forces perhaps more than Abu Ghraib.

In addition to giving money to politicians, Prince has funded a number of right-wing organizations, including Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, through his Freiheit Foundation, named after a German word that means both “freedom” and “liberty.”

Prince, a one-time intern for the Family Research Council, gave $500,000 through his foundation to Prison Fellowship, an evangelistic ministry to prison inmates started by ex-Watergate felon Chuck Colson.

Other recipients include:

–The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, a conservative think tank that promotes a “free society informed by religious faith and moral absolutes.”

–The Education Freedom Fund, which provides scholarships to allow low-income families to send their children to private schools.

–Christian Freedom International, an organization devoted to helping the “persecuted church.”

–The Haggai Institute, a mission organization founded by evangelist John Haggai.

–Crisis Magazine, a politically conservative political magazine written from a traditional Catholic perspective with columnists including former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

Prince also is a member of the Council for National Policy, a secretive organization that brings together right-wing activists and financial backers founded by “Left Behind” author Tim LaHaye.

Prince told the congressional committee his company’s armed guards are not trigger-happy “cowboys” and accused the media of a “rush to judgment” about a Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad involving Blackwater personnel that left at least 17 Iraqis dead and is under investigation by the FBI, State Department and Iraqi government.

“We have 1,000 guys out in the field,” he said. “People make mistakes. They do stupid things sometimes.”

Prince insisted that the company disciplines or dismisses workers who break the rules and said many of the episodes under investigation came to light only because Blackwater reported them.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.