Erik Prince: CIA Asset, Aspiring High School Teacher

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After 9/11, Erik Prince, the patriotic and intensely private founder of Blackwater, applied to work for the CIA. The agency turned him down, Prince tells Vanity Fair in a just-published article, because he lacked “enough hard skills, enough time in the field” to be of use as a spy. The irony is that his company and Prince himself would go on to take part in some of the agency’s most sensitive work. Not only was the CIA a Blackwater client but, Vanity Fair reveals, its ex-Navy Seal founder eventually became a “full blown asset.”

Three sources with direct knowledge of the relationship say that the C.I.A.’s National Resources Division recruited Prince in 2004 to join a secret network of American citizens with special skills or unusual access to targets of interest. As assets go, Prince would have been quite a catch. He had more cash, transport, matériel, and personnel at his disposal than almost anyone Langley would have run in its 62-year history.

…Two sources familiar with the arrangement say that Prince’s handlers obtained provisional operational approval from senior management to recruit Prince and later generated a “201 file,” which would have put him on the agency’s books as a vetted asset. It’s not at all clear who was running whom, since Prince says that, unlike many other assets, he did much of his work on spec, claiming to have used personal funds to road-test the viability of certain operations.

Prince typically shuns interviews, though his efforts to avoid media attention have only seemed to bring him more of it. By last March, he’d grown so “worn out,” so tired of being a flashpoint of controversy and a magnet for negative coverage, that he stepped aside as the CEO of Xe, as his scandal-tainted security empire had renamed itself last February. On rare occasions, Prince has granted access to reporters in order to put forward his side of the story and hit back at his numerous critics. He never seems to grow any less baffled by the fact that he and his company are routinely attacked while simultaneously doing some of the nation’s most thankless and dangerous work. And he openly despises the weak-kneed politics that stand in the way of covert operators doing the messy work of keeping the country safe. “Every time an American goes through security, I want them to pause for a moment and think, What is my government doing to inconvenience the terrorists? Rendition teams, Predator drones, assassination squads. That’s all part of it,” Prince tells the author of the Vanity Fair story, Adam Ciralsky, who used to work for the CIA himself.

According to Ciralsky, Prince granted him extraordinary access in order “to reveal exactly what he has been doing in the shadows of the U.S. government” as well as to “convey why he’s going to walk away from it all.” Along the way Ciralsky adds some substantial details to the role Prince played in a covert CIA program to track and assassinate members of Al Qaeda. Blackwater’s involvement with this effort, which the CIA has insisted never got off the ground, was first reported by the New York Times in August. But according to the Vanity Fair piece, this program, whose hit squad Prince was initially brought in to train, was quite operational.

Among the team’s targets, according to a source familiar with the program, was Mamoun Darkazanli, an al-Qaeda financier living in Hamburg who had been on the agency’s radar for years because of his ties to three of the 9/11 hijackers and to operatives convicted of the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in East Africa. The C.I.A. team supposedly went in “dark,” meaning they did not notify their own station—much less the German government—of their presence; they then followed Darkazanli for weeks and worked through the logistics of how and where they would take him down. Another target, the source says, was A. Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani scientist who shared nuclear know-how with Iran, Libya, and North Korea. The C.I.A. team supposedly tracked him in Dubai. In both cases, the source insists, the authorities in Washington chose not to pull the trigger. Khan’s inclusion on the target list, however, would suggest that the assassination effort was broader than has previously been acknowledged.

Blackwater, according to Vanity Fair, was not technically involved in this program per se. Rather “these were supposedly off-the-books initiatives done on Prince’s own dime, for which he was later reimbursed.” Prince told Ciralsky: “We were building a unilateral, unattributable capability. If it went bad, we weren’t expecting the chief of station, the ambassador, or anyone to bail us out.”

America and Erik Prince, it seems, have been slow to extract themselves from the assassination business. Beyond the killer drones flown with Blackwater’s help along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (President Obama has reportedly authorized more than three dozen such hits), Prince claims he and a team of foreign nationals helped find and fix a target in October 2008, then left the finishing to others. “In Syria,” he says, “we did the signals intelligence to geo-locate the bad guys in a very denied area.” Subsequently, a U.S. Special Forces team launched a helicopter-borne assault to hunt down al-Qaeda middleman Abu Ghadiyah. Ghadiyah, whose real name is Badran Turki Hishan Al-Mazidih, was said to have been killed along with six others—though doubts have emerged about whether Ghadiyah was even there that day…

And up until two months ago—when Prince says the Obama administration pulled the plug—he was still deeply engaged in the dark arts. According to insiders, he was running intelligence-gathering operations from a secret location in the United States, remotely coordinating the movements of spies working undercover in one of the so-called Axis of Evil countries. Their mission: non-disclosable.

If this account is correct, it raises a host of questions. Among them is whether CIA director Leon Panetta, who reportedly shut down the program immediately after learning of it and promplty briefed Congress, misinformed lawmkers about the nature of this effort, its targets, and just how operational it actually was. If, as Prince claims, he helped tee up a target for special forces to take out, then the agency’s assertions that the assassination program never got off the ground are simply untrue.

Prince, for his part, is shocked that the existence of the black program ever came to light: “I don’t understand how a program this sensitive leaks. And to ‘out’ me on top of it?”

“The left complained about how [C.I.A. operative] Valerie Plame’s identity was compromised for political reasons. A special prosecutor [was even] appointed. Well, what happened to me was worse. People acting for political reasons disclosed not only the existence of a very sensitive program but my name along with it.”

For now at least, Prince says, he’s done doing the nation’s dirty work. 

“I’m going to teach high school,” he says, straight-faced. “History and economics. I may even coach wrestling. Hey, Indiana Jones taught school, too.”

Follow Daniel Schulman on Twitter.


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