Last month a three-year-long federal prosecution of Blackwater collapsed.
The government’s 15-felony indictment - on such charges as conspiring to hide purchases of automatic rifles and other weapons from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives - could have led to years of jail time for Blackwater personnel.
In the end, however, the government got only misdemeanor guilty pleas by two former executives, each of whom were sentenced to four months of house arrest, three years’ probation, and a fine of $5,000.
Prosecutors dropped charges against three other
executives named in the suit and abandoned the felony charges altogether.
It was the tens of thousands of pages of documents - some declassified - that the litigation left in its wake.
These documents illuminate Blackwater’s defense
strategy - and it’s a fascinating one: to defeat the charges it was facing, Blackwater built a case not only that it
the CIA - which was already widely known - but that it was in
many ways an extension of the agency itself.
But according to the documents Blackwater submitted in its defense - as well as an email exchange I had recently with Prince - the contractor’s relationship with the CIA was far deeper than most observers thought.
A prime example of the close relationship appears to have unfolded on March 19, 2005.
On that day, Prince and senior CIA officers joined King Abdullah of Jordan and his brothers on a trip to Blackwater headquarters in Moyock, North Carolina, according to lawyers for the company and former Blackwater officials.
After traveling by private jet from Washington
to the compound, Abdullah (a former Jordanian special-forces officer) and
Prince (a former Navy SEAL) participated in a simulated ambush, drove
vehicles on a high-speed racetrack, and raided one of the compound’s “shoot
houses,” a specially built facility used to train warriors in close-quarters
combat with live ammo, Prince recalls.
They also presented three Blackwater-engraved Glock pistols to Abdullah’s brothers.
According to Prince, the CIA asked Blackwater to give the guns to Abdullah,
Three years later, the ATF raided the Moyock compound (Blackwater is based in Moyock, North Carolina).
In itself, this wasn’t unusual; the ATF had been conducting routine inspections of the place since 2005, when Blackwater informed the government that two of its employees had stolen guns and sold them on the black market.
Typically, agents would show up in street clothes, recalled Prince.
But the 2008 visit, according to Prince, was different.
During the raid, the ATF seized 17 Romanian AK-47s and 17 Bushmaster AR-13 rifles the bureau claimed were purchased illegally through the sheriff’s office in Camden County, North Carolina.
It also alleged that Blackwater illegally shortened the barrels of rifles and then exported them to other countries in violation of federal gun laws.
Meanwhile, in the process of trying to account for Blackwater’s guns, the ATF discovered that the rifles and pistols presented in 2005 to King Abdullah and his brothers were registered to Blackwater employees.
Prosecutors would subsequently allege that
Gary Jackson - the former president of Blackwater and one of the two
people who would eventually plead guilty to a misdemeanor - had instructed
employees to falsely claim on ATF forms that the guns were their own
personal property and not in the possession of Jordanian royalty.
That said, it provided the court with classified
emails, memoranda, contracts, and photos. It also obtained sealed
depositions from top CIA executives from the Directorate of Operations,
testifying that Blackwater provided training and weapons for agency
operations. (A CIA spokesman declined to comment for this story.)
This document is the closest Blackwater has come
to acknowledging that Prince himself was a CIA asset, something first
reported in 2010 by Vanity Fair. One of the names on the list of CIA
officers with knowledge of Blackwater’s work in the document is “Erik P” -
with the remaining letters whited out.
When I asked Prince why Blackwater would often work for free, he responded,
Moreover, according to still-sealed testimony described to us, the agency had its own secure telephone line and a facility for handling classified information within Blackwater’s North Carolina headquarters.
CIA officers trained there and used an area -
fully shielded from view inside the rest of the Blackwater compound by
20-foot berms - to coordinate operations.
In 2010 Prince sold Blackwater, which is now
Academi, for an estimated $200 million.
Prince retains control of numerous companies affiliated with Academi, but he
told me that he had “ceased providing any services” to the U.S. government.
David Boies, the lawyer who represented Al Gore in Bush v. Gore, took up Gary Jackson’s case last fall.
Boies told me he did so because he saw the prosecution as an abuse of power.
Reflecting on the prosecution and the scrutiny of the company he founded, Prince said the charges against Blackwater executives left him “perplexed and angry.”