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Secretive founder of Blackwater in spotlight

Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince is sworn in on Capitol Hill Tuesday before testifying to House committee.
Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince is sworn in on Capitol Hill Tuesday before testifying to House committee.
Susan Walsh, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. — Since founding Blackwater USA a decade ago, Erik Prince has gone to great lengths to avoid attention, trying to prevent photographers from taking his picture and demanding that his contractors never speak with reporters.

The veil of secrecy was lifted Tuesday as the former Navy Seal was called to Congress to defend his security company against allegations it covered up the killings of Iraqi civilians.

Prince, a 38-year-old native of Holland, Mich., started Blackwater with a few commando buddies from the Navy, using millions of dollars he inherited from his family's auto-parts fortune. For its headquarters, he chose a tiny community called Moyock, on a remote, empty stretch of North Carolina swampland.

A year after leaving the Navy in 1996, he founded Blackwater primarily as a training center for law enforcement, and colleagues speak privately about his well-intentioned eagerness to improve the nation's security.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Blackwater expanded to become the largest of the State Department's three private security contractors. Since 2001, it has earned more than $1 billion in federal contracts.

The company first drew public attention in 2004, after four Blackwater contractors were killed while escorting a convoy through the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Photographs of the men's mutilated bodies hanging from a bridge remain an indelible image of the war.

When the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigated that incident earlier this year, Prince sent Blackwater's attorney to represent his company. A few months later, he grew visibly uncomfortable on stage as photographers snapped his photo at a technology conference in suburban Raleigh. Conference officials later asked the photographers not to publish the photos.

When in public, the former Navy Seal often uses his hand to shield his face from cameras. Former and current colleagues demur when asked about him, not willing to betray Prince's loyalty or annoy the secretive leader of the nation's best-known private security company.

"He's trying to run a business and run it professionally under strenuous conditions," said Scott Traudt, operations manager for Cohort International, a competitor based in Lebanon, N.H. "Realistically, there's ongoing projects by (terrorist groups) to collect data on private contractors.

"I appreciate and understand his efforts to protect his family. The guy needs his privacy."

Prince's family has long-standing ties to the GOP in Michigan, where his sister, Betsy DeVos, once served as chair of the state Republican Party, and her husband, Dick DeVos, unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2006.

Prince, who currently lives outside Washington, himself has given more than $200,000 to Republican causes since 1998.

On Tuesday, Prince sat alone at a long witness table before the House committee, at times turning to consult with an attorney seated behind him during nearly four hours of testimony.

"We strive to perfection," Prince said, noting that 30 contractors have died working for Blackwater. "We drive to the highest standards. But the ... bad guys just have to get lucky once."