The House Intelligence Committee has sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department for Erik Prince, founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater. House Democrats are accusing Prince of lying to Congress during his November 2017 testimony before the committee, when he described a meeting in the Seychelles with a Russian banker before Donald Trump’s inauguration as a chance encounter. According to the Mueller report, the meeting was an attempt to establish a backchannel between the incoming Trump administration and Russia, and may have been arranged by the Trump team. The move is one of the latest actions placing Erik Prince in the spotlight after more than a decade of largely working in the shadows after Blackwater shut down. In a major new report, The Intercept looks at Prince’s latest actions, including his pitch to privatize the war in Afghanistan; his creation of a mercenary army for the United Arab Emirates; a history of mismanaged projects that have soured his relationships with leaders around the world; and his comeback, made possible with the help of the Trump administration. We speak with Matthew Cole, the investigative journalist who wrote the story. It’s titled “The Complete Mercenary: How Erik Prince Used the Rise of Trump to Make an Improbable Comeback.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. The House Intelligence Committee has sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department for Erik Prince, founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater. House Democrats are accusing Prince of lying to Congress during his November 2017 testimony before the committee, when he described a meeting in the Seychelles with a Russian banker before Donald Trump’s inauguration as a chance encounter. According to the Mueller report, the meeting was an attempt to establish a backchannel between the incoming Trump administration and Russia, and may have been arranged by the Trump team. The move is one of the latest actions placing Erik Prince in the spotlight after more than a decade of largely working in the shadows after Blackwater shut down.
In a major new report, The Intercept takes a look at Prince’s latest actions, including his pitch to privatize the war in Afghanistan; his creation of a mercenary army for the United Arab Emirates; a history of mismanaged projects that have soured his relationships with leaders around the world; and his comeback, made possible with the help of the Trump administration. He is also the brother of Betsy DeVos, the current education secretary.
We’re joined now by Matthew Cole, the investigative journalist who wrote the story. The article is entitled “The Complete Mercenary: How Erik Prince Used the Rise of Trump to Make an Improbable Comeback.”
Matthew, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about why you’re focusing on Erik Prince today.
MATTHEW COLE: Well, I think part of the genesis of this story was, is that Erik Prince was sort of gone from the public eye for about 10 years, by and large, after he left the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: Would you say “fled” the United States?
MATTHEW COLE: I think that’s partly right. I mean, he moved his entire family to the United Arab Emirates. I don’t think it’s necessarily so that he was afraid of U.S. justice. I think that he was—the U.S. government and Obama administration had soured on Erik Prince and Blackwater, and so he needed a new start. And he went to the Emirates, and he found a benefactor there in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who’s the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates. And he built himself a new program, a new job, a new form of income, which was two secret armies—one for the Emirates and the Emiratis, and one in Somalia.
And I think, as he’s come back with the Trump administration, it was important to understand what he had been doing for the last 10 years, and really to understand, as he tries to pitch in Afghanistan—new reports that he’s trying to sell a program in Venezuela and a mercenary army there—to understand who he really is, both as a businessman, as a strategic thinker and, more than anything else, I think, sort of where he is politically, which is, what people don’t realize is, really on the dirty tricks side of things. And that was something that was surprising as I went through the reporting, was that he took his skills that he had picked up and worked and sold around the world, and ended up sort of coming around and using them domestically and finding domestic partners for them.
AMY GOODMAN: For people who aren’t familiar with Erik Prince, go back to Blackwater and what it did, what it was known for—among other things, Nisoor Square.
MATTHEW COLE: Sure. Blackwater was a private military consulting group, a company that provided armed guards, security, operatives for the U.S. military, for the State Department and for the CIA in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Blackwater, sort of as a name, became known and understood around the world or infamous for American hubris, because they had a series of incidents, massacres, mismanagement and violence that occurred in Afghanistan, but most memorably and unfortunately in Iraq. And by the end of the Obama—Bush administration, rather, Prince was forced to change the name, because it had become so toxic after Nisoor Square, and sell. He was forced—
AMY GOODMAN: Nisoor Square was the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians with this band of Blackwater guards in a square in Baghdad where they opened fire.
MATTHEW COLE: Right. And he became too toxic, and Blackwater became too toxic, so they changed the name, and then he was forced to sell. And once the Obama administration comes in, they make it very clear that Blackwater was not welcome in the government contracting world. And so he had to find a new gig.
AMY GOODMAN: So, jump forward to that meeting in the Seychelles.
MATTHEW COLE: So, in January of 2017, a week before the inauguration of Donald Trump, Erik Prince gets on a plane and goes to the Seychelles, where he is attending the private strategy session of Mohammed bin Zayed. And Erik Prince had previously essentially been part of bin Zayed’s—MBZ as he is referred to—his royal court, as an adviser on counterterrorism and fighting Islamic militarism and militants in the Middle East and Northern Africa, East Africa. And he’s there—we now know, and certainly from reporting and then the Mueller report—he’s there to meet with a top Russian banker who’s the emissary for Putin.
And MBZ is trying to put together a sort of new world order with a new incoming U.S. administration, to try to solve Syria, to try to figure out what to do in Yemen, and try to, from their standpoint, from the Gulf Arab standpoint, beat back Iran. And all of those things are things that Erik Prince has been obsessed with for 20-plus years. And so he has this meeting with MBZ, but then he also has a secondary meeting with this Russian banker, who is the backchannel to Putin.
And what we get out of it for the next couple of 18 months is Erik Prince’s insistence that the meeting was by chance, that he had run into this Russian at the bar and had a beer, and it was just two guys who were talking commodities prices. And what my story did was to look at—and, in fact, that’s actually where the story began for me, and the reporting, was I had done a lot of reporting on Erik’s business efforts in a—his effort in a private equity fund in Africa. And in that reporting, what I discovered was that he had mostly just lost his own money. He had poured anywhere from $35 million to $50 million in his own money and lost almost all of it. And so it seemed odd to me that he was saying to Congress, “The Emiratis said, 'Hey, you're in the commodities business, and this Russian banker who manages an $8 billion sovereign wealth fund is also in the commodities business. You have a lot to talk about.’”
And what struck me was that they had nothing to talk about. You know, one was a guy who had managed to lose his own money, at a small amount relative to world finance, and another is one of the biggest sovereign wealth bankers in the world. So, unless they’re passing messages between two entities, they really had nothing to talk about. And that sort of began my journey through Erik Prince’s last 10 years as a businessman.
AMY GOODMAN: And that was Kirill Dmitriev, who was the chief—a very close associate, as well, to President Putin.
MATTHEW COLE: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about—I mean, Erik Prince was with Donald Trump the night he was elected, very close to him, again, the brother of Betsy DeVos. Talk about his plan to privatize the war in Afghanistan.
MATTHEW COLE: Sure. With Trump’s election, Prince was back in the game. And he had been out for eight years, for the entire Obama administration. And the Trump administration, which was largely backed by the Mercer family during the campaign, also close to the Prince family, Bannon, Breitbart—all people that Erik Prince was close to—Erik Prince saw an opportunity here to get back into government contracting.
And his plan was to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan in their entirety and replace them with something like what he called the East India Corporation—that’s what he compared it to—and that the U.S. should have a viceroy, and that someone like Erik Prince should be the viceroy and put together a private military that would do work with the Afghan army. And that proposal, which he plugged in op-eds, on television, landed very poorly inside the national security establishment in the U.S. It also landed very poorly in Afghanistan, where Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said, under no circumstances will Erik Prince or a private military, foreign military, be allowed to operate in Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: You also have this latest report from Reuters: “Over the last several months, … Prince has sought investment and political support for … an operation [involving Venezuela] from influential Trump supporters and wealthy Venezuelan exiles. In private meetings in the United States and Europe, Prince sketched out a plan to field up to 5,000 soldiers-for-hire on behalf of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, according to two sources with direct knowledge of Prince’s pitch.”
MATTHEW COLE: You know, what makes Erik Prince so unique is that there are very few Americans who have the wealth and the political power and his experience, so that someone who has never really worked for the government or been part of government is taken so seriously whenever there is or wherever there is a conflict, a hot spot around the world. Erik Prince travels the world almost weekly, going to capitals, meeting with countries’ leaders, selling a mercenary concept, a paramilitary arm. And what he tries to do is own every piece of a supply chain for conflict.
And so, it was no surprise—it was shocking, but it was no surprise—that he had a plan for Venezuela. One hopes—and part of the reason why I worked on this story for so long was, one hopes that by understanding how incompetent he is as a businessman and as a manager for these programs, that no one would trust him to give him that kind of responsibility or the money to pay for something like this.
AMY GOODMAN: You broke news with this part of the piece: “During the 2016 election, he became involved with James O’Keefe and Project Veritas, a group of conservative provocateurs who specialize in using hidden-camera footage and secret recordings.”
MATTHEW COLE: Yeah. And this was, again, what I was saying about him coming back sort of domestically, was, as he failed abroad, he started to look at politics and come back home. And what he did was he found like-minded groups. He had been pitched years before to be an investor in an Israeli intelligence company called Black Cube, which got notoriety during the #MeToo movement, the hashtag #MeToo movement, with the Harvey Weinstein investigations. And they are former Israeli intelligence operatives who act and pose as people, as journalists, to try to gather information, usually for dirt. And it’s—
AMY GOODMAN: Weinstein hired them to try to—
MATTHEW COLE: Right. Weinstein’s lawyer hired them to try to figure out what journalists who were digging into the story knew and to try to see if they could stop the stories. And so, Erik Prince has merged, essentially, with Project Veritas and James O’Keefe, and provided them with training from former spies, to teach them surveillance, elicitation, weapons training. He brought them out—after the election, he brought them out to his family ranch in Wyoming and gave them weapons training. And what he has now is a team of dedicated people who have some training in being undercover. And the question is, is: To what end?
AMY GOODMAN: Project Veritas goes after groups like Planned Parenthood.
MATTHEW COLE: Right. But I actually think that what we’re going to see, and in fact we have some indication already, that Erik Prince is using Project Veritas to target his political enemies or political enemies of the Trump administration or his political associates. And so that becomes the question, is: What is he doing with them? How are they going to be used? What are they capable of? And as he has been sort of denied the ability to sell, let’s say, tanks or planes, he is now trying to sell undercover intelligence operatives—but not for a covert war, for American politics. And that’s what makes him particularly dangerous.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion and post it online at democracynow.org. Matthew Cole, investigative journalist for The Intercept. We’ll link to his piece, “The Complete Mercenary: How Erik Prince Used the Rise of Trump to Make an Improbable Comeback.”
That does it for our broadcast. Happy Birthday, Denis Moynihan! Democracy Now! has a job opening for a full-time, paid digital social media fellowship. Go to democracynow.org for details. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.