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4 Insights About Blackwater Founder Erik Prince

Erik Prince, then-chairman of the Prince Group LLC and Blackwater USA, testifies during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in 2007.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Erik Prince, then-chairman of the Prince Group LLC and Blackwater USA, testifies during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in 2007.

Erik Prince has bounced around the American news universe for more than a decade. He first rose to prominence with his security firm Blackwater, which helped guard U.S. officials and government facilities overseas, most notably in Iraq. After selling the company in 2010, Prince fell off the U.S. radar for several years during which he helped establish a mercenary army for the United Arab Emirates. But in recent weeks and months, he has made a string of public appearances and statements in the U.S., including an opinion piece Wednesday in The New York Times in which he lobbies for his proposal to send contractors to Afghanistan instead of more American troops.

Here are four things to know about Prince:

1) Prince wants to use private contractors in Afghanistan

In a series of television interviews and op-eds, Prince has waged an active public campaign for his plan to reshape the war in Afghanistan. Prince's efforts have raised eyebrows in Washington, where critics note that his current company, the Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group, could profit handsomely if the Trump administration were to hand over much of the war effort in Afghanistan to contractors.

So what is his plan? Prince calls for a "sustainable footprint" of 2,000 American special operations forces and support personnel along with a force of some 6,000 contractors, which would actually be a significant cut from the current tally of 26,000 contractors in the country who are performing a variety of functions including providing security. In Prince's proposal, the contractors would help train Afghan security services and patrol alongside them.

Prince argues that this plan would cost less and put fewer Americans at risk.

By all accounts, however, Prince's proposal was and remains a nonstarter with the president's national security team, which is dominated by generals with firsthand experience in Afghanistan.

Most importantly, it was not part of the administration's new Afghan strategy that President Trump laid out on Aug. 21. Officials say the Pentagon has the authority to send around 4,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to try to stanch a resurgent Taliban.

2) Remember Blackwater?

Prince, a former Navy SEAL, helped found Blackwater in 1997. The company rose to prominence after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Blackwater won hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. government contracts in the wars, but the company became associated with some of the most notorious episodes of the American occupation of Iraq.

In 2004, insurgents ambushed Blackwater contractors in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and strung up the charred bodies from a bridge over the Euphrates River. Then in 2007, Blackwater guards protecting a U.S. convoy opened fire in Baghdad's Nisour Square, killing several unarmed Iraqi civilians. Four Blackwater contractors were convicted in a U.S. court in 2014 for their roles in the shooting and given lengthy prison sentences. A federal appeals court early this month tossed out the sentences of three of the contractors, ordering that they be resentenced. The court ordered a new trial for the fourth contractor.

With its name associated with some of the darkest incidents of the U.S. war in Iraq, Blackwater rebranded itself as Xe Services LLC in 2009, and Prince sold the company soon after.

3) Prince, Trump and Russia

Prince's name came up in connection with the Russia imbroglio in April when The Washington Post published a story about what it described as a secret meeting between Prince and a Russian with close ties to President Vladimir Putin. The meeting, allegedly arranged by the United Arab Emirates, took place in the Seychelles about a week ahead of Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration, according to the Post.

Prince and the Russian's discussion purportedly touched on, among other things, Russia's ties with Iran and whether Moscow would be willing to rein in its relationship with Tehran, particularly in Syria where the two back President Bashar Assad.

When the Post story came out, a Prince spokesman rejected the allegations. Speaking to Fox News this month, Prince acknowledged that he had a meeting in the Seychelles but denied it had any connection to Trump.

"I had a business meeting with some guys from the Middle East, and that's why I was in the Seychelles," Prince told Fox. "And they said, 'Hey, you should meet this other guy who's some kind of fund manager we've done business with.' So I had a beer with him, not even a vodka. And it lasted a few minutes and that's it. It had nothing to do with the United States, with the U.S. government, with the election or with the Trump campaign or anything like that."

Prince accused the Obama administration of revealing his identity in intelligence surveillance reports and said, "They tried to create some nexus to Russia from me doing a business meeting somewhere."

Prince was not a member of the Trump campaign, and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer has said that Prince "had no role in the transition."

But Prince was a strong supporter of the Republican candidate. He also reportedlymade numerous visits to Trump Tower after the election and acted as an informal adviser to the transition team.

Prince also has a relationship with Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who left his job at the White House this month. Bannon opposed sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and reportedly supported Prince's approach to the war.

Officials say it is unclear how, or even if, Prince fits into the broader question of Trump-Russia ties. But it's a question some are asking.

4) Prince's family ties with the Trump administration

Oh, by the way: Prince's sister is Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.
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