This story, which was part of a series of articles by the Grand Rapids Press, was the first that the Press has run on the war profiteer company Blackwater USA. The article is quite favorable towards the life of Blackwater founder Erik Prince, with not a single critical comment provided in the entire article. The only mention of anything that could be considered critical were the mention of lawsuits by family members of Blackwater employees who were killed in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004 and a book has recently come out that scrutinizes Blackwater. There are actually several books that are critical of Blackwater and the one sourced in the article does not include the name of the author, nor any of the analysis provided by the author.
The story spends a fair amount of time discussing Prince’s upbringing and his connection to the religious right, but fails to provide and critical assessment of those connections. One of those connections is Gary Bauer with the Family Research Council who acknowledges the financial contributions the Prince family has made by saying “I can say without hesitation that, without Ed and Elsa and their wonderful children, there simply would not be a Family Research Council.” However, there is no mention of what the Family Research Council does with the contributions they receive which is particularly relevant for West Michigan in that the FRC has been involved in anti-gay rights campaigns and promoted school vouchers. The other main religious connection mentioned in the story is that of Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute. Again, there is no mention of Acton Institute’s politics other than to say that Sirico and Prince “have had many conversations about the free market and faith.” A good idea of Fr. Sirico means by the free market and faith was Acton’s hosting of Fred Smith from the Competitive Enterprise Institute the past February in Grand Rapids. Smith has stated that global warming is not really a problem and both he and the Acton Institute have been recipient’s of substantial amounts of money from Exxon/Mobil for making such claims. Considering the growing influence of a company like Balckwater, how is it that the Grand Rapids Press fails to adequately scrutinize this company?
Even back in Holland Christian High School, Erik Prince did some of his best work behind the scenes.
As a senior, Prince played on the 1986 soccer team that won a state championship, but his coach remembers him for traits other than athletics.
“He was very, very intense,” recalled coach Dan Walcott.
Prince wore a Marine haircut in a decade of longer hair. He was often last to leave practice, even staying behind to pick up balls. He was quiet.
But Walcott said there was something else about Prince: “You knew if he was going to do something, he was going to go after it.”
His call to action came a decade later.
Prince, son of Holland industrialist Edgar Prince and an ex-Navy SEAL, tapped his inherited wealth in 1996 to found a little-noticed North Carolina security firm that would become Blackwater USA.
Family connections helped. As brother to former Michigan GOP chairwoman Betsy DeVos and brother-in-law to her husband, 2006 GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos, Prince had access to Capitol Hill power brokers.
But his business plan did not crystallize until the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
With the U.S. decision to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, a changing military looked to the private sector to complete a variety of missions.
Blackwater was in prime position to capitalize.
Center of controversy
According to government records, Blackwater has reaped more than $800 million in federal contracts over the past five years.
With Prince at the helm, the firm stands at the center of growing controversy over the role of private security firms in times of war. Lawmakers in a Democratic Congress are pressing for aggressive oversight of firms such as Blackwater.
A recent book, “Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army,” has added scrutiny.
Beyond that, a pair of lawsuits allege company negligence resulted in death. One of the suits stems from the grisly mutilation and killing of four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
Prince, 37, almost never talks to the media and declined several requests to be interviewed for this story. He is rarely photographed in public.
But in a rare e-mail interview with The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in 2006, he outlined his vision for the firm.
“We have a very long-term view to our work,” Prince wrote.
“We see ourselves assisting in the transformation of the (Department of Defense) into a faster, more nimble organization. The private sector has always led innovation in our country.”
Patriotic’ and conservative
One expert on the private military said Prince stands apart from the typical profile of a private security firm executive.
According to Deborah Avant, professor of political science at George Washington University, Prince and others like him are eager to prove the legitimacy of their firms’ offerings.
She knows Prince better than some of the others, since he stops by her office from time to time to chat about security issues. But other qualities set Blackwater and its founder apart.
“Blackwater is owned by one guy, who is very rich,” Avant said. “He’s very connected. He’s very tied to the Christian right.”
Avant said many of these firms send her Christmas cards, as did Blackwater last year.
“Theirs was the only one with a Nativity scene on the front,” she said.
Given his upbringing, that is not surprising.
Prince grew up in Holland, coming of age at a time of prosperity for his father’s automotive firm. Edgar Prince built Prince Corp. from scratch into Holland’s biggest employer, with 4,500 workers at eight plants, including one in Mexico.
Quietly, Edgar Prince gave millions of dollars to revitalize Holland, even as he shunned publicity.
“The whole family was like that. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” said State Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, 38, a classmate of Prince at Holland Christian.
Huizenga recalled Prince was “very patriotic” and talked of joining the military as far back as high school.
Edgar Prince and his wife, Elsa, were committed to the Republican cause and a conservative social agenda that fit the family’s Christian Reformed Church roots.
Gary Bauer, former head of the Family Research Council and a 2000 candidate for president, credited Edgar Prince with a key role in getting the council off the ground. “I can say without hesitation that, without Ed and Elsa and their wonderful children, there simply would not be a Family Research Council,” Bauer wrote.
Prince was accepted into the Naval Academy after high school but dropped out after three semesters, enrolling at Hillsdale College, long considered a bastion for conservative values.
‘Family man and a believer’
In 1992, Erik Prince and his father split politically with his sister, Betsy DeVos, who was then 5th District GOP chairwoman. They backed Pat Buchanan for president. She supported President George H.W. Bush.
As a 22-year-old senior at Hillsdale, Prince explained his decision to The Press.
“I interned with the Bush administration for six months,” he said.
“I saw a lot of things I didn’t agree with — homosexual groups being invited in, the budget agreement, the Clean Air Act, those kind of bills. I think the administration has been indifferent to a lot of conservative concerns.”
Prince also found time in college to volunteer for the Hillsdale Fire Department.
The Rev. Robert Sirico, a Catholic priest and founder of the Grand Rapids-based Acton Institute, a conservative think tank, recalled a dinner meeting with Prince around 1990.
At that dinner, Sirico met with Dick DeVos, his parents, Rich and Helen DeVos, and Edgar and Elsa Prince. He recalled Prince joined the dinner later, coming in smelling like smoke from fighting a fire.
Sirico called Prince a “family man and a believer” who converted to Catholicism within about a year of that meeting.
Since then, Sirico has become a friend to Prince. He baptized four of his children. He also spoke at the funeral of Prince’s wife, Joan, who died of cancer in 2003.
Sirico said he and Prince have had many conversations about the free market and faith.
He said they share many views, namely “that business leaders, in light of their calling from God to be creative, have a sacred obligation to use their creativity for the good, to deal honestly with others.”
Sirico added Prince is “fundamentally a person who acts rather than talks.”
At age 19, Prince made his first political contribution: A $15,000 donation to the GOP. By 2006, his total contributions had swelled to more than $235,000 — virtually all to Republican or conservative causes.
After college, Prince re-entered the Navy in 1992 and was accepted into the SEALS, a special forces unit considered military elite.
A business is born
In March 1995, employees found Edgar Prince slumped to the floor in a company elevator. He died a short time later at Holland Community Hospital.
The company was sold the following year to Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc. for $1.35 billion.
Prince formed Blackwater the same year, teaming with his SEALS trainer, Al Clark, to build Blackwater. Clark has since left the company.
They named the firm for the black-colored water they found throughout the low-lying property at the North Carolina-Virginia border.
Clark and Prince shared many of the same ideas for a first-class training ground for military and police clients. Prince added the money. The firm struggled to make a profit in its first years, making much of its money from the sale of targeting systems for police or military training.
Politics and world events converged to change all that.
Time of war
The assault on the U.S.S. Cole in October 2000 prompted the military to rethink tactics and training for dealing with terrorism. The election of George W. Bush in November ushered in a new secretary of defense — Donald Rumsfeld — who was bent on remaking the armed forces, in part by expanding the use of private contractors.
The attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 meant the United States was going to war, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq.
“Osama bin Laden turned Blackwater into what it is today,” Clark told The Virginian-Pilot.
Even as its revenues mounted, Blackwater remained off the radar screen of most Americans until March 31, 2004.
That day, four Blackwater contractors became icons for a war gone wrong. They were killed as they entered Fallujah, escorting a convoy of trucks. Their bodies were burned, mutilated and strung up from a bridge by an angry mob.
Ohio resident Donna Zovko, 54, lost her son, former Army Ranger Jerry Zovko, 32, in that attack. She is among survivors suing Blackwater.
She recalled Erik Prince came to the home of her son, outside Cleveland, where she was staying at the time, to inform her of Jerry’s death.
“He wasn’t this monster or anything. It showed me he had feelings,” she said of Prince.
She remembered he sat in the dining room at least 30 minutes and talked about her son. Her husband, Joe, even thought there was a strong resemblance between Prince and their son.
But at a memorial later that year at Blackwater for the Fallujah contractors and those killed elsewhere, Zovko got a different impression of Prince. At the time of that service, Zovko pressed for answers about what had happened in Fallujah.
“Whenever we tried to ask about it, they said it was classified,” she said. “They said if we wanted to know, we would have to sue.”
“That’s why I want to go through with this (lawsuit). It needs to be shown they are not above the law.”