- The Washington Times - Monday, July 6, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BLACKWATER USA’S ERIK PRINCE AND THE BUSINESS OF WAR

By Suzanne Simons

Collins, $27.99, 288 pages

Reviewed by John Weisman

Reading CNN producer Suzanne Simons’ “Master of War: Blackwater USA’s Erik Prince and the Business of War,” it becomes apparent why the term “TV journalism” seems all too often to be an oxymoron.

Mrs. Simons sets out her goals early. They are ambitious. Former Navy SEAL officer and Blackwater founder Erik Prince, she writes, “controls a private army that could single-handedly win many small wars. Is he a business genius? A war profiteer? The lucky recipient of a Pentagon shell game? What makes him tick?”

Sadly, despite Mrs. Simons’ “eighteen months, more than one hundred hours of interviews, and access to Blackwater’s top offices and facilities around the world,” she successfully answers virtually none of those questions.

Mrs. Simons is most successful when she catalogs Mr. Prince’s background and formative years. Her narrative has the easy flow of a voice-over. We learn, for example, that by age 10, Mr. Prince “had seen firsthand the places where some of history’s worst atrocities had occurred, including a trip through Europe and a visit to one of the most notorious death camps of World War II.”

We learn that Mr. Prince’s conservative and religious values were reinforced through family friends, including James Dobson, “founder of the conservative advocacy group Focus on the Family”; Chuck Colson, the former Watergate figure who went on to found the Prison Fellowship and become one of Time magazine’s 25 “Most Influential Evangelicals in America” and Gary Bauer, “president of the conservative group American Values.”

We also learn that by the age of 17, Mr. Prince had his pilot’s license; that in high school, he ran track, played soccer and wrestled. Mr. Prince was admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy and then left abruptly, graduating from “the small conservative campus of Hillsdale College in rural southern Michigan” before enlisting in the Navy, going through Officer Candidate School and then on to the hellish Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL selection course. Mr. Prince and 33 others made it through BUD/S Class 188.

Even in these scene-setting sections, however, Mrs. Simons’ prose takes on a vaguely disapproving tone, as if there is something louche about being friends with evangelicals or accepting advice from Watergate-era conservatives. Her nattering negativity accelerates when she gets to the meat of her book: Blackwater’s rapid rise during the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.

She describes in sweeping terms how Gen. Ricardo Sanchez “watched as the State Department brought on contractors [like Blackwater] to help with security, and he grew uneasy at the potential conflict with his own troops.” According to Mrs. Simons, Gen. Sanchez was worried about “quality control” and “oversight.”

This is the same Gen. Sanchez, by the way, on whose watch a similar lack of oversight and quality control took place at Abu Ghraib prison, where both military personnel and private contractors working for the U.S. military were largely unsupervised and did more damage to the reputation of the United States than Blackwater. However, Mrs. Simons never puts Gen. Sanchez’s comments in context of the larger problem: lack of proper oversight by the chain of command.

Because Gen. Sanchez is Mrs. Simons’ friendly witness, she never bothers to grill him about how his lack of proper oversight helped create the Abu Ghraib scandal. Instead, she writes only that Abu Ghraib “would eventually play a role in his leaving the military.” What convenient understatement!

Mrs. Simons writes that “in early February 2005, Prince stunned Washington by announcing that [CIA Counterterrorism Center director and later State Department anti-terrorism coordinator] Cofer Black was taking the position of vice chairman with the company.”

“Stunned”? She explains herself thus: “Blackwater was not then known to be in the business of private intelligence. Logistics, security and training was one thing. A private CIA was something else entirely.” Obviously, Mrs. Simons has never heard of Booz Allen Hamilton, where former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and the National Security Agency’s Mike McConnell have worked. Or any of the dozens of “Beltway bandits” that have taken over a large percentage of the CIA’s core mission of intelligence gathering and analysis. For profit.

Mrs. Simons also falls into the habit, common to neophyte TV news reporters, of not specifically identifying the sources of damning criticism. Neither are sourcing notes included in the book. Thus, Mr. Prince and Blackwater are damned by “bloggers,” “a senior DoD official,” “some inside the State Department,” “those in the know,” “a former company executive” and “critics,” among others.

Nor is Mrs. Simons an elegant writer. Her style leans toward tabloid. Mr. Prince, for example, decides “to pen a letter” of protest to a newspaper. At the 2006 opening of Blackwater’s new headquarters building in Moyock, N.C., Mr. Prince “stood outside, almost at attention. … He was clad in sunglasses, a polo shirt, and military-style pants and boots. This was not your run-of-the-mill executive event.”

Mrs. Simons describes Blackwater’s Washington headquarters as “an unmarked McLean, Va., high-rise.” Her insinuation: There is something sinister about an unmarked building.

She notes “Prince’s preference for lawyers affiliated with Republicans.” Her knowledge of nomenclature leaves a lot to be desired. The dropped rear ramp of a plane is to Mrs. Simons “the open hole in the back.”

Nor is she above using the “When did you stop beating your wife” technique. “Some in the European Parliament,” Mrs. Simons writes, “suspected that Prince’s Presidential Airways had operated rendition flights for the CIA and said so in a report. An attorney for Prince pressed the European Parliament for proof, but proof never materialized. The attorney insisted the report was false and demanded a correction.”

So far, so good. But then Mrs. Simons plays gotcha: “While the possibility of Prince’s companies taking part seemed plausible,” she writes, “Prince denied it ever happened.” That, friends, is what’s called schlock journalism.

Blackwater has been on the ropes since the September 2007 Nisoor Square incident in which Blackwater employees purportedly killed 17 Iraqis. (That incident, by the way, is covered much more completely in “Big Boy Rules,” Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Fainaru’s excellent book on private security contractors in Iraq.) The name Blackwater became such a lightning rod that in February, Mr. Prince changed the company’s name to Xe and its top-of-the-line training facility to U.S. Training Center (USTC).

It is incontrovertible that USTC remains one of America’s best training venues. It also is incontrovertible that just as Mr. Prince and his company saved American lives and protected American diplomats, they also made mistakes that have had huge consequences for U.S. policy. It is probable that Mr. Prince’s hubris was responsible for some of those flawed decisions. But neither Mr. Prince nor Blackwater deserves the sort of treatment they get from Mrs. Simons in this book.

John Weisman’s latest novels, “SOAR,” “Jack in the Box” and “Direct Action” are all available as Avon paperbacks. He can be reached at aresddog@gmail.com

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