December 11th, 2009 10:07 EST
Erik Prince, Blackwater and The CIA
In public he was the lean and ruthless face of American military outsourcing in Iraq. Erik Prince, as founder of the Blackwater security company, packed a mobile phone on one hip and a handgun on the other as he flew in and out of the world`s troublespots co-ordinating protection teams for American VIPs " and handling the backlash when his employees were accused of shooting dead 17 Iraqi civilians at a Baghdad crossroads in 2007.
In private, he was a CIA operative, with his own file as a vetted asset " at the agency`s headquarters, and a mission to build a unilateral, unattributable capability " to hunt down and kill al-Qaeda militants for the US Government wherever they could be found.
These claims, made by Mr Prince and supported by others who knew of his activities, form part of a potentially explosive investigation into the life of America`s best-known mercenary.
Mr Prince, aside from his work in Iraq, set up America`s closest forward operating base to the Pakistani border in Afghanistan, and helped to train a CIA assassination team that hunted an alleged senior al-Qaeda financier in Germany, and included A. Q. Khan, a Pakistani nuclear scientist, on its list of targets, according to Vanity Fair magazine.
Mr Prince is a billionaire and former member of the US Navy Seal special forces, who avoided publicity during his long and lucrative period as a favoured security contractor for the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA. Between 2001 and 2009 his company won government contracts worth an estimated $1.5 billion (Â£900 million) and built a private air force of Black Hawk helicopters and troop-ferrying aircraft based at a 7,000-acre facility in North Carolina.
Despite the political uproar, and a 15-month investigation by the Department of Justice that followed the 2007 massacre in Baghdad, Mr Prince has to date made few public comments on his company`s work, and none on his own relationship with the CIA.
He now has more reason to go public: according to three sources who spoke to Vanity Fair, Mr Prince was recruited by the agency in 2004 and ran intelligence-gathering operations in an unnamed Axis of Evil country until only two months ago, but was partially outed " by leaks that followed a closed-door briefing of congressional leaders by Leon Panetta, the CIA director, last summer.
Mr Prince regards those leaks as a betrayal: When it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under a bus, " he said. He claims that his company is now paying $2 million a month in legal bills to defend itself against lawsuits in both Iraq and the US, and has been singled out because of who he is. I`m an easy target, " he told the magazine. I`m from a Republican family and I own this company outright. Our competitors have nameless, faceless management teams. "