Yesterday, May 19, the Economic Club of Grand Rapids hosted CEO and founder of Blackwater Worldwide, West Michigan native Erik Prince. The event–which was sold out–was open to members of the Economic Club, the media, and members of the general public who paid $35 for tickets. Prince spoke to an audience of 750 people in the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel and was seated at a table that included David Van Andel, Richard DeVos, and Dick and Betsy DeVos. Erik Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, introduced him and told the audience that Erik’s life work has been to “protect those who are vulnerable.” There was time for a few questions at the end of the talk, but the media was not allowed to ask any questions and Prince declined to answer at least one of the questions posed to him.
Prince used a PowerPoint presentation for his talk. Its cover page had an image of a military base with bold text that read, “In Support of Security and Peace Everywhere.” Prince began his talk about trying to convince the audience that the use of private military contractors is nothing new and has been part of the US military since the Revolutionary War. He cited several examples including Sir Walter Raleigh, but his favorite example was that of Prussian militarist Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben. Prince also mentioned that some of the original firefighters in the US were private contractors, as were some US counterintelligence groups like the Pinkertons. He told the audience that the Pinkertons helped spoil a plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in Baltimore, but failed to mention that the Pinkertons were hired spies for “the Robber Barons” of the 19th and early 20th century and that they were hired to infiltrate and target organized labor.
Next, Prince turned his attention to Blackwater Worldwide and stated that they train 35,000 military/law enforcement personnel annually. He explained that their facility in North Carolina is used by local law enforcement all the time and that consequently it is not “secretive” as Blackwater’s critics charge. Prince then mentioned Blackwater’s involvement with an Afghan counter narcotics program, but fails to mention that since the US invasion of 2001 Afghanistan has become the number one producer of heroin. He also went out of his way to mention that Blackwater flew 11,000 missions in Afghanistan in support of US military last year and that they delivered Christmas packages to the troops. “Some people say they support the troops, well, we really support the troops,” Prince said.
Prince discussed other services that Blackwater provides, including a new vehicle they have developed called the Grizzly Armored Personnel Carrier, which he claims would better protect US troops from roadside bombs. Prince said that he hopes the Department of Defense will invest in their product.
The rest of Prince’s presentation consisted of defending what Blackwater does and how they exist to serve American interests. Prince said that 90% of their employees take an oath to the US and that despite the claims that his private contractors commit abuses, “we go above and beyond what is required” with government accountability. Prince stressed that Blackwater believes in “market efficiencies” and that his organization is best equipped to provide training and logistical support for the “new style of warfare that is being waged around the world.”
Prince ended his presentation by talking about all of Blackwater’s “humanitarian efforts,” from rescuing US troops to providing disaster relief aid. He even told the crowd that just a few days earlier while in Holland, he received a phone call from three missionaries from West Michigan who were in Kenya. They asked Prince if he could assist them in getting out of that country, since tensions had increased in recent months.
The 40-minute presentation by Prince was over and those in attendance filed out of the room. In many ways, this event was a perfect opportunity for Prince to speak to a crowd that was most likely sympathetic to the work of Blackwater, not so much on partisan terms, but because of the company’s “free market” claims. Prince said at one point during his talk that Blackwater was nothing more than a “robust temp agency.”
Unfortunately, for the public, the press was not able to able to engage the founder of Blackwater, instead we were sequestered upstairs where we would not even be within eyesight of the war profiteer. Moreover, the press was not allowed to use cameras or tape the event. Prince was therefore able to avoid having to talk about the shooting of Iraqi civilians last September that led to a Congressional investigation. Prince’s ability to avoid public scrutiny also means he could avoid talking about his support of and ties to far right groups such as the Family Research Council.
Over the past two years, Mediamouse.org has done numerous stories on Blackwater, Erik Prince, and the Prince family including analyses of the media’s coverage of Blackwater and an interview with Jeremy Scahill, the author of the acclaimed book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Click here to read more.