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State's Secrets

Blackwater Aimed to Hunt Pirates

October 2, 2007 | WASHINGTON | Erik Prince, chief executive officer of the company formerly known as Blackwater, is seen reflected in the witness table before he testified at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on security contractors.

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WASHINGTON — Besieged by criminal inquiries and Congressional investigators, how could the world’s most controversial private security company drum up new business? By battling pirates on the high seas, of course.

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In late 2008, Blackwater Worldwide, already under fire because of accusations of abuses by its security guards in Iraq and Afghanistan, reconfigured a 183-foot oceanographic research vessel into a pirate-hunting ship for hire and then began looking for business from shipping companies seeking protection from Somali pirates. The company’s chief executive officer, Erik Prince, was planning a trip to Djibouti for a promotional event in March 2009, and Blackwater was hoping that the American Embassy there would help out, according to a secret State Department cable.

But with the Obama administration just weeks old, American diplomats in Djibouti faced a problem. They are supposed to be advocates for American businesses, but this was Blackwater, a company that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had proposed banning from war zones when she was a presidential candidate.

The embassy “would appreciate Department’s guidance on the appropriate level of engagement with Blackwater,” wrote James C. Swan, the American ambassador in Djibouti, in a cable sent on Feb. 12, 2009. Blackwater’s plans to enter the anti-piracy business have been previously reported, but not the American government’s concern about the endeavor.

According to that cable, Blackwater had outfitted its United States-flagged ship with .50-caliber machine guns and a small, unarmed drone aircraft. The ship, named the McArthur, would carry a crew of 33 to patrol the Gulf of Aden for 30 days before returning to Djibouti to resupply.

And the company had already determined its rules of engagement. “Blackwater does not intend to take any pirates into custody, but will use lethal force against pirates if necessary,” the cable said.

At the time, the company was still awaiting approvals from Blackwater lawyers for its planned operations, since Blackwater had informed the embassy there was “no precedent for a paramilitary operation in a purely commercial environment.”

Lawsuits filed later by crew members on the McArthur made life on the ship sound little improved from the days of Blackbeard.

One former crew member said, according to legal documents, that the ship’s captain, who had been drinking during a port call in Jordan, ordered him “placed in irons” (handcuffed to a towel rack) after he was accused of giving an unauthorized interview to his hometown newspaper in Minnesota. The captain, according to the lawsuit, also threatened to place the sailor in a straitjacket. Another crew member, who is black, claimed in court documents that he was repeatedly subjected to racial epithets.

In the end, Blackwater Maritime Security Services found no treasure in the pirate-chasing business, never attracting any clients. And the Obama administration chose not to sever the American government’s relationship with the North Carolina-based firm, which has collected more than $1 billion in security contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Blackwater renamed itself Xe Services, and earlier this year the company won a $100 million contract from the Central Intelligence Agency to protect the spy agency’s bases in Afghanistan.

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