- Jeremy Scahill
award-winning independent journalist, a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at the Nation Institute and the author of the international bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His article, Secret Erik Prince Tape Exposed is published on his new blog for TheNation.com
Investigative journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill obtains a rare audio recording of a recent private speech delivered by Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater, to a friendly audience in January. The speech, which Prince attempted to keep from public consumption, provides a stunning glimpse into his views and future plans and reveals details of previously undisclosed activities of Blackwater. In a Democracy Now! exclusive broadcast, we play excerpts of the recording and speak with Scahill about the revelations. [includes rush transcript]
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Erik Prince doesn’t like being in the media spotlight. The reclusive owner of the private military firm known as Blackwater is scheduled to give the keynote address tomorrow at the Tulip Time Festival in his hometown of Holland, Michigan. True to form, Prince told the event’s organizers no news reporting could be done on his speech, and they consented to the ban. But journalists and media associations in Michigan protested the move, and on Monday the organizers reversed their position and said the media would be allowed to attend with one caveat: no video or audio recording devices are allowed inside.
Well, despite Prince’s attempts to shield his speeches from public scrutiny, investigative journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill obtained a rare audio recording of a recent private speech delivered by Prince to a friendly audience in January. The speech, which Prince attempted to keep from public consumption, provides a stunning glimpse into his views and future plans and reveals details of previously undisclosed activities of Blackwater. Jeremy’s article on the recording of Prince’s speech was published on his new blog for thenation.com.
AMY GOODMAN: The audio the speech has never before been broadcast. Today we’ll air excerpts in a Democracy Now! exclusive. But first, Jeremy Scahill joins us here in our Democracy Now! studio. He’s an award-winning independent journalist, Puffin Foundation writing fellow at the Nation Institute, and the author of the international bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Jeremy is also scheduled to speak tomorrow in Holland, Michigan, just hours after Erik Prince, at a separate event organized by the Interfaith Congregation of Holland.
Jeremy Scahill, welcome to Democracy Now!
JEREMY SCAHILL: Nice to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this tape. How did you get it?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Erik Prince has been in the media, you know, at times, because he has had to respond. When his forces killed seventeen innocent Iraqis in Nisoor Square, he made the rounds on CNN and 60 Minutes and other places, and he generally goes into a very controlled environment. He doesn’t often give speeches. He doesn’t lecture on the university circuit. And when he does give talks, he makes it very clear to the event organizers that there are to be no recording devices in there, and journalists are not allowed.
And so, I had a contact with someone who had the opportunity to go to this private event that was hosted by the Young Presidents Organization, and Erik Prince was giving a speech in front of all of these entrepreneurs. It was a private gathering. And they had ROTC cadets from the University of Michigan, the commanders of ROTC there. And in fact, at one point during his speech, Erik Prince stops, after he had been bashing some NATO countries and saying that some of the US allies in Afghanistan should pack up their bags and get out of the country. He singled out Canada as a positive example of a force that was doing a good job in Afghanistan. He stopped, and he said, "I just want to make it clear: everything I’m saying here is off the record, in case any journalists slipped into the room."
Well, let’s remember, this is a man whose company does 90 percent of its business with the federal government. Taxpayers fund this man’s corporation. We have a right to know what he’s up to. We have a right to know, when you can’t get documents on Blackwater, what the owner of this company is saying. So I reveal the details of this tape in the interest of the First Amendment freedom of the press, but also because I believe the American people have a right. So, someone contacted me, said they were going to be going to this, and I asked that individual, "Do you think you could record it?" And so, what happened was that this person went into the event and clandestinely recorded Erik Prince speaking. And what he said was really incredible.
There are a number of key points to focus on. One is that Erik Prince said that the United States should send armed mercenaries — he doesn’t use the term, but that’s what they are, armed mercenaries — into Somalia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. With the exception of Nigeria, he talked about Yemen and Somalia and Saudi Arabia facing Iranian threats and that the Iranians were, as he put it, at the dead center of badness in the world. And he said that by sending in private contractors, armed contractors, instead of the military, you solve the sort of political problems from sending a large US force, and said that the private sector can do this in a much smaller footprint way, and it also would be politically expedient, because there would essentially be plausible deniability on the part of the government.
In the case of Nigeria, of course, we’ve seen an increase in resistance movements and indigenous movements that are protesting against multinational oil corporations polluting, doing what they perceive to be stealing of Nigeria’s most valuable resource, this oil-rich African nation. Erik Prince talked about these Nigerian groups as stealing oil from the multinational oil corporations and suggested, without providing any evidence whatsoever, that revenue from this theft, by Nigerian groups of the oil, was being used to fund terrorist operations. I talked to some military sources that I have that have extensive experience with US Special Forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and what they found most disturbing about what Prince said was that Prince told a story of July 2009, where his narcotics interdiction unit, a 200-person strike force in Afghanistan that I had never heard of this force before, they actually were operating near the Pakistan border, they came across what they said was a massive hashish and heroin operation, and Blackwater forces actually called in air strikes that then came in and destroyed this facility. The idea that a private company is individually calling in air strikes raises serious questions about the chain of command issue in Afghanistan. How is it that a private force is able to simply get on the phone and, within moments, call in air strikes that, you know, take out anything?
The other story that disturbs military folks that I’ve talked to is that Erik Prince tells a story of how his Blackwater forces resupply a US military unit with ammunition when they’re running low. And he says that the reason that Blackwater did it is because there was too much lawyering involved with the official military doing it. So Blackwater was contacted, he said, by this military unit, and they brought in the resupply, the ammunition. Again, chain of command issues. How is it that Blackwater is able to just unilaterally work with individual units of the US military, or, in the case of the so-called drug bust, that they’re actually calling in air strikes?
Prince, Amy, also said that Blackwater took down Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, and Prince called the Secret Service "flatfooted" and said that he’s going to be publishing a book in the fall — Erik Prince is. It’s going to be like, you know, Chicken Soup for the Mercenary Soul. And he said he’s going to publish a photo of the Blackwater guy taking down the man that Prince called the "Iraqi shoe bomber." You know, I had never heard an allegation that there was a bomb there. But I mean, there was — when Erik Prince is speaking in front of the media, you get one version of the story. When he’s talking in front of business leaders and the military, you hear a very different side of things, and I think it’s very revealing.
The Pentagon should be asking very serious questions right now of Erik Prince about what exactly his forces are doing in Afghanistan. He also said he controls four forward operating bases inside of Afghanistan, including one at the base of the mountains of Tora Bora, which is the closest US base, and it’s operated, in Erik Prince’s terms, by Blackwater, to the Pakistan border. But he described having these in different strategic locations around Afghanistan. This was not a speech by a man who seems like he’s concerned that he’s going out of business anytime soon. He seems to be doing quite well and very much at the center of things in Afghanistan.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Jeremy, we want to go to one of those clips. This has never before been broadcast. It’s difficult to hear.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right.
SHARIF ADBEL KOUDDOUS: We have the transcript up for our television viewers. But for our radio audience, why don’t you set up this clip. This is about the Geneva Conventions.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, this was recorded by someone who had to do it secretly, so it was recorded from a seat in the audience, you know, with the room ambiance, so it’s a bit hard to make out. But what Erik Prince — he says that people have come up to him and said, "Aren’t you concerned when you operate in the likes of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan?" Interesting, because Blackwater has denied it works in Pakistan, but here’s Erik Prince mentioning his work in Pakistan. "Aren’t you concerned that when you work in these places, you don’t have protection under the Geneva Convention?" You know, there’s a debate about this, that they could be classified as "unlawful combatants" because they’re essentially mercenaries, it’s arguable under international law definitions. And Prince said, "Absolutely not, because the people that we’re fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are barbarians who crawled out of the sewer." And he said that they have a 1200 A.D. mentality and that they don’t know where Geneva is, let alone that there was a convention there. It’s interesting that he misuses the term "convention" there, because it wasn’t a convention in the sense of a meeting, but a convention in the sense of an international agreement that was brokered that governs now international affairs. So here’s Erik Prince expressing a disdain over the debate about the status of his forces in the Geneva Conventions.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: So let’s go to that clip. Listen carefully. This is Erik Prince speaking in January, never before been broadcast.
ERIK PRINCE: They are there to kill us. They don’t understand — people ask me that all the time. "Aren’t you concerned that your folks aren’t covered under the Geneva Convention in dealing in the likes of Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan?" And I say, "Absolutely not," because these people, they crawled out of the sewer, and they have a 1200 A.D. mentality. They’re barbarians. They don’t know that there’s — they don’t even know where Geneva is, let alone that there was a convention there.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That was Erik Prince. Again, it was difficult to understand. You can go to our website at democracynow.org for a transcript — it’s up on the screen — of what he’s saying. We’re going to another clip right now, Jeremy. This is him talking about Yemen, about Saudi Arabia, about the Middle East, and specifically about the influence he thinks of Iran.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, as he put it, as Erik Prince put it, as I said, you know, Iran is at the dead center of badness in the world. And he painted this picture where Iran is fomenting a Shiite revolt in the region, and he talked about how they’re stirring up this revolt in Yemen and doing cross-border raids into Saudi Arabia. And he talked about the Iranian influence in Somalia and other countries and talked about the Iranians providing support for improvised explosive devices in Iraq. And he said that in the case of Yemen and Saudi Arabia and Somalia, that the Iranians have had a very sinister hand in these places. So, Erik Prince proposed that the US send in forces, small forces of US mercenaries, because he said that you’re not going to solve the problem by putting a lot of uniformed soldiers in these countries. It’s way too politically sensitive, he said. The private sector can operate there with a very, very, very small, very light footprint.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Again, let’s go to that tape. This is Erik Prince.
ERIK PRINCE: The Iranians are stirring it up in Yemen first. They’re trying to stir it up in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. The Iranians have had a very, very big hand in Iraq, certainly, and there’s a lot of evidence that they’re supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, as well. We’ve seen more and more sophisticated IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that are blowing up our troops on the road, even some evidence of surface-to-air missiles being moved in. So the Iranians have a very sinister hand in these places. You’re not going to solve it by putting a lot of uniformed soldiers in all these countries. It’s way too politically sensitive. The private sector can operate there with a very, very, very small, very light footprint.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Again, that was Erik Prince speaking in January. Difficult to hear. Jeremy, your article really goes through all of what he says throughout this speech. Talk about — well, go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: And interestingly, he’s speaking at the University of Michigan, where President Obama just gave the commencement address yesterday.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, exactly, and where he’s going to be speaking on Wednesday, in Holland, Michigan, is at the DeVos Fieldhouse, which is owned by the DeVos family, the owners of the Orlando Magic basketball team, the biggest bankrollers of the rise of the radical religious right. His sister, Betsy, is married to Dick DeVos, the heir to that fortune. And it’s interesting because he almost always speaks at some kind of a venue there that’s controlled by either his family or his extended family.
The last part of what Prince said in that clip, though, is very significant. He talked about the issue of the very small footprint. And that’s been his line for a long time, that the US government has very expensive military operations and that if you take a high-end team of Special Forces operators, like those that work for Blackwater, former SEALS, Delta Force, JSOC guys, Joint Special Operations Command guys, that you can send in less of them and that they can inflict much more damage. So he’s suggesting that this would be something that could be done right now: send them into these countries to take out "the bad guys," as he called it. He constantly uses that term, "the bad guys."
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And other things that Prince talks about, about training Afghan forces and also about Hurricane Katrina and Blackwater’s presence there in the aftermath.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, he said that Blackwater trains somewhere in the ballpark of 1,500 Afghans every six weeks. And Blackwater is currently competing for this massive training contract to train the Afghan police. And there are some other companies doing it, but Blackwater right now has a large part of the market cornered, and so they spend a lot of time with these Afghan forces.
But he also sort of spoke disparagingly, in a way that sort of was cultural imperialism, about Afghans. You know, he said that the Afghans that come to us, you know, they’ve never been a part of something professional and something that works. And he said that, you know, they don’t know how to use toilets, and the first thing we have to do is teach them intro to toilet use. He also talks about women that are working with Blackwater, and he says, you know, they come to work in their burkas, and then they put on their cammies, their camouflage, and he said, you know, they really like the baton work, and they get carried away with the handcuffs, wanting to handcuff men all the time. And, you know, he was sort of speaking disparagingly of them, and then at the same time turns around and says, "But in six weeks, we turn these individuals into what US generals have told me is the most effective fighting force in Afghanistan." You know, I wonder what General McChrystal thinks about that, given his Army Ranger history, that Afghans who spend six weeks with Erik Prince’s force are somehow the most effective fighting force in Afghanistan.
And then, finally, Sharif, as you mentioned, he — Erik Prince brags that Blackwater saved 128 people during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I was down there, and we were all down there, Amy, and we saw the Blackwater guys. We talked to some of them. They said that they were there to confront criminals and stop looters. But what Prince says that I think would be offensive to Louisiana is he says that Blackwater forces beat the Louisiana National Guard to the scene of the hurricane zone. And he says, you know, "We jumped from five states over and beat the Louisiana National Guard." He doesn’t mention that 35 to 40 percent of the Louisiana National Guard was deployed in Iraq, along with massive amounts of equipment that could have been used in recovery operations, that could have been used in humanitarian operations there. So to say Blackwater beat the Louisiana National Guard, without mentioning that part of the reason there wasn’t an effective Louisiana National Guard response was because so many of them were in Iraq and deployed abroad — and they expressed anger. I remember seeing some of them coming back into Louisiana livid with President Bush, saying, "He cares more about Iraq than he does about Louisiana, and we should have been here."
And so, you know, he uses that then to launch off, Amy, and say he participated — Prince is a SEAL — in the "invasion," he called it, of Haiti in 1994. And then he said that he had wanted to create a humanitarian barge, like this massive vessel that could respond to natural disasters around the world, that could be supported by large pharmaceutical companies and Archer Daniels Midland, but that because of political attacks from the left, because of his tens of millions of dollars in legal bills, he had to cancel it. And he says, you know, "A ship like that sure could come in handy right now in Haiti as it deals with the earthquake."
AMY GOODMAN: He also talked about the CIA bombing in Khost.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, he did, although he didn’t mention the fact that Blackwater was guarding the CIA individuals that were blown up that day. You remember there was a Jordanian double agent that managed to penetrate Forward Operating Base Chapman, and he killed eight CIA personnel, including two Blackwater operatives. I have learned from a very well-informed intelligence source within the US government that the Blackwater men were doing security that day. So, you know, in a way, you could say that Blackwater operatives failed to protect the CIA individuals that were there that day. But Prince talked about it being a necessary cost of doing business. And that’s when he segued into his disdain for the Geneva Convention, was when he started saying that the people we’re fighting are barbarians that crawled out of the sewer. But he doesn’t mention that Blackwater had personnel killed there. He also compares himself to Valerie Plame and says that he was a victim of outing and that, you know, the government depends on Americans who are not working officially with the government, but are contractors, for the entire intelligence apparatus to function, and it was unprecedented, for someone like him running a sensitive program, which was essentially a CIA assassination program, to be outed publicly, and compared himself to Valerie Plame.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, you’re going to Holland, Michigan tomorrow. You’re going to be speaking hours after Erik Prince.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, I mean, an Interfaith Congregation in Holland, Michigan, when they learned that Erik Prince was going to be speaking — initially it was going to be completely closed off to any public scrutiny. I mean, what’s the difference between closing it off to the public and not allowing journalists to record it in audio or video? And they said, you know, "We, as residents of this city, are offended that this man is going to be speaking at what is supposed to be a sort of cultural celebration of the heritage of people there and that they’re going to shut it down, essentially, from any kind of coverage. So we want to bring someone in to give the other side of the story," because the organizers of the festival said that Prince was going to be talking about the value-based lessons of his childhood. Well, what about the values that Erik Prince’s forces have shown in Iraq when they’ve shot innocent civilians and stolen childhoods, like Ali Kinani, the nine-year-old boy who was the youngest victim of Blackwater at Nisoor Square? We reported on that at Democracy Now! My intent is to go there and tell the other side of the story, the one that Erik Prince certainly won’t be discussing inside the DeVos Fieldhouse.
AMY GOODMAN: And we will link to that story that you did tell about Ali Kinani at democracynow.org. Jeremy, thanks so much for being with us. Jeremy Scahill, independent journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, is starting a new blog at thenation.com, where he writes about his acquiring this tape of a speech of Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater.