Erik Prince, an American Commando in Exile
Credit: Preston Keres / The Washington Post / Getty Images
While Prince's success may have been partly the result of his aggressive approach, it made some of his own executives nervous. "Erik decided to become a lightning rod and then [attach it] to his ass," says Mike Rush, another ex–Navy SEAL and former Blackwater vice-president, of Prince's business manner. "Erik would walk up and down the corridors of Langley and the Pentagon telling everyone how fucked up they were and how they should run the war," he continues. "That's nice…. but we had to do business with those people."

Prince's "sell first, figure it out later" style injected massive stress into his rapidly expanding venture. Everyone remembers him as impatient. Prince's own stance on those early days: "You hire people, they don't work out, you move on." In the scramble to keep contracts manned, Blackwater trained, hired, and rotated thousands of men. The men generally had little time for their bureaucratic State Department counterparts, and the natural tension between them became fertile ground for payback when the media and lawyers came looking for sources with a score to settle with Prince. But between 2003 and 2007, Prince had his own agenda and didn't focus on petty squabbles.

In 2002, a few short months after 9/11, the CIA had turned him down for a job when he applied to be part of its Clandestine Services, specifically the Special Activities Division of the agency. The CIA, he says, told him he didn't have enough "hard skills." So, two years later, in December 2004, he hired the CIA – bringing in Cofer Black following 28 years of service with the agency. Prince installed the former CIA exec as Blackwater's "chief breacher" – the man who blows in doors on a SEAL team.

As Blackwater grew, so did Prince's ambitions. Indulging his lifelong love of aviation, he began assembling a small air force of smaller cargo planes, helicopters, and even large transports (including a Boeing 767) for either a Dulles-to-Baghdad run or the rendition of terror suspects, depending on whom you believe.

He also hatched a plan to vertically integrate all these assets to form a self-sufficient army of 1,740 men – an "army in a box" complete with air support, medical and construction outfits, and high-tech weapons that could deploy instead of, say, a United Nations peacekeeping brigade. Registered in Barbados under the name Greystone, this new company was designed to hire foreign employees and operate outside U.S. legal restrictions. "It is more difficult than ever for your country to successfully protect its interests against diverse and complicated threats in today's grey world," Greystone's brochure stated. Prince even pitched then Secretary of State Colin Powell a version of this: a battalion-size humanitarian force that could provide "relief with teeth" in the Darfur region of Sudan. To Powell and his advisors, Prince's gunned-up proposal was as politically acceptable as calling a nuclear strike on an orphanage.

Meanwhile, as if Prince didn't have enough going on, the CIA finally accepted him for its NOC program. As a "non-official cover operative," he was given a polygraph and an operational code name, and only his handler knew his true identity from his "201" personnel file. Prince volunteered to find terrorist targets for "capture or kill." Twice he was able to come through, but authorities in Washington never gave the green light.

Blackwater was supposed to be the grease in the wheels of regime change in Iraq, but there was soon serious friction. Numerous troubling events that had been buried in action reports came to light: Blackwater was suffering from its success and spreading itself too thin.

In the violent fall of 2004, I spent an unrestricted month covering Blackwater teams running the charred route between the Green Zone and Baghdad International Airport. The daily 15-minute thrill ride often included close calls, angry Iraqis, sniper attacks, car bombs – enough near-death experiences to last a lifetime. I was able to see the service that our government was buying, and while I also took taxis and private cars without incident, I found Blackwater's teams aggressive but professional.

But when I returned to Baghdad in 2006, at least one contractor complained that Blackwater had become a "flat-out sloppy fucking operation," and the men I knew apologized to me for the "roid-rager" who told me to "get the fuck out of here" when he heard I was media.

The press soon brought Blackwater's most egregious acts to the attention of the public: dead Iraqis, a crashed plane, crushed vehicles, a drunken shooting of a vice-president's security man, media guards gunned down, and much more. On the CIA side, "big-boy rules" were in effect. These rules are a tacit code among covert operatives that states that there are no rules until you break one – by, say, appearing before Congress on every television on Earth. Prince's mission to find terrorists fizzled and then died under the new administration. Finally, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in power (as a senator, she had introduced legislation to put the kibosh on private contractors), Blackwater ran out of oxygen. So Prince, ever the SEAL, quickly assessed, adjusted, and moved on.