The Russian Connection: Blackwater

In a recent article, the Washington Post revealed that the founder of Blackwater, a for hire mercenary group, Erik Prince, had a secret meeting in the Seychelles Islands with a Russian representative arranged by the United Arab Emerites to broker a backchannel between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The meeting took place around Jan. 11 — nine days before Trump’s inauguration — in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, officials said. Though the full agenda remains unclear, the UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would be likely to require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.

Though Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign or transition team, he presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump to high-ranking Emiratis involved in setting up his meeting with the Putin confidant, according to the officials, who did not identify the Russian. [..]

U.S. officials said the FBI has been scrutinizing the Seychelles meeting as part of a broader probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and alleged contacts between associates of Putin and Trump. The FBI declined to comment.

So who is Erik Prince? In case you don’t remember the role Blackwater played in Iraq. The company, a renegade mercenary army, was hired by the Bush Department of State to provide security for American diplomats and contractors and became enmeshed with the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine anti-terrorism operations. Needless to say, due much to the lack of oversight of the company, the results were disastrous, culminating in the Nisour Square massacre that killed 17 and wounded 20 unarmed Iraqis. After eight years of cover-ups, botched investigations and prosecutorial misconduct by the DOJ, four of the contractors were convicted in 2015.

That hasn’t stopped Prince, a former Navy SEAL, a huge donor to the Republican Party and brother of Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Prince is also friends with the Trump advisor and white nationalist, Steve Bannon, from Bannon’s days as chief editor of the fake news site, Breitbart, and has a close relationship with Vice President Mike Pense. He also donated heavily to Trump’s campaign and has been seen at Trump Tower going up to Trump’s offices.

Jeremy Scahill reported last March at The Intercept that Prince and his new Hong Kong-based company, Frontier Services Group, has been under investigation by the FBI and other federal agencies for money laundering, ties to Chinese intelligence and brokering mercenary services:

What began as an investigation into Prince’s attempts to sell defense services in Libya and other countries in Africa has widened to a probe of allegations that Prince received assistance from Chinese intelligence to set up an account for his Libya operations through the Bank of China. The Justice Department, which declined to comment for this article, is also seeking to uncover the precise nature of Prince’s relationship with Chinese intelligence. [..]

For more than a year, U.S. intelligence has been monitoring Prince’s communications and movements, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence officer and a second former intelligence official briefed on the investigation. Multiple sources, including two people with business ties to Prince, told The Intercept that current government and intelligence personnel informed them of this surveillance. Those with business ties were cautioned to sever their dealings with Prince. [..]

In 2010, amid public scandals and government investigations, Prince began to sell off his Blackwater empire. Using new vehicles, he continued to engage in controversial private security ventures, including operations in Somalia and the United Arab Emirates. Eventually, the former Navy SEAL and self-proclaimed American patriot began building close business ties with powerful individuals connected to the Chinese Communist Party. In January 2014, Prince officially went into business with the Chinese government’s largest state-owned investment firm, the Citic Group, and founded Frontier Services Group, which is based in Hong Kong. Citic Group is the company’s single largest investor, and two of FSG’s board members are Chinese nationals.

Despite the provenance of FSG’s funding and Prince’s history of bad publicity, Prince was able to recruit an impressive line-up of former U.S. military and intelligence officers to run the company. Key to Prince’s ability to retain such personnel, given FSG’s ties to China, has been the firm’s strictly circumscribed mission, which does not include military-related services. FSG is a publicly traded aviation and logistics firm specializing in shipping in Africa and elsewhere. The company also conducts high-risk evacuations from conflict zones. Prince has described his work with FSG as being “on the side of peace and economic development” and helping Chinese businesses to work safely in Africa.

Behind the back of corporate leadership at FSG, Prince was living a double life.

Working with a small cadre of loyalists — including a former South African commando, a former Australian air force pilot, and a lawyer with dual citizenship in the U.S. and Israel — Prince sought to secretly rebuild his private CIA and special operations enterprise by setting up foreign shell companies and offering paramilitary services, according to documents reviewed by The Intercept and interviews with several people familiar with Prince’s business proposals. [..]

Since 2014, Prince has traveled to at least half a dozen countries to offer various versions of a private military force, secretly meeting with a string of African officials. Among the countries where Prince pitched a plan to deploy paramilitary assets is Libya, which is currently subject to an array of U.S. and United Nations financial and defense restrictions.

Prince engaged in these activities over the objections of his own firm’s corporate leadership. Several FSG colleagues accused him of using his role as chairman to offer Blackwater-like services to foreign governments that could not have been provided by the company, which lacks the capacity, expertise, or even the legal authority to do so. [..]

“He’s a rogue chairman,” said one of Prince’s close associates, who has monitored his attempts to sell mercenary forces in Africa.

That source, who has extensive knowledge of Prince’s activities and travel schedule, said that Prince was operating a “secret skunkworks program” while parading around war and crisis zones as FSG’s founder and chairman. “Erik wants to be a real, no-shit mercenary,” said the source. “He’s off the rails exposing many U.S. citizens to criminal liabilities. Erik hides in the shadows … and uses [FSG] for legitimacy.”

Last October, FSG’s corporate leadership grew so concerned about Prince’s efforts to sell paramilitary programs and services that the board passed a series of resolutions stripping Prince of most of his responsibilities as chairman.

FSG also terminated the contracts of two of Prince’s closest associates within the company after management became suspicious that they were assisting Prince in his unapproved dealings, according to two people with knowledge of FSG’s inner workings. Smith declined to comment on internal FSG personnel matters.

In recent months, FSG employees became alarmed when they began to hear reports from sources within the U.S. government that their chairman’s communications and foreign travel were being monitored by U.S. intelligence. According to three people who have worked with Prince, his colleagues were warned not to get involved with his business deals or discuss sensitive issues with him. “I would assume that just about every intelligence agency in the world has him lit up on their screen,” said one of the people advised to avoid Prince. [..]

In 2010, Prince sold most of his equity in the companies that fell under the Blackwater umbrella. Claiming that left-wing activists, Democratic politicians, and lawsuits had destroyed his companies, he left the United States and became a resident of Abu Dhabi. The remnant of his network was renamed Academi LLC. Federal prosecutors eventually attempted to prosecute Prince’s former companies, culminating in a 2012 deferred prosecution agreement to settle a lengthy list of U.S. legal and regulatory violations committed from 2005 through 2008 when Prince was in charge, including ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) violations.

A senior official involved with the Blackwater-related litigation, who has since left the government, told The Intercept that the Obama administration’s continued willingness to award contracts to former Blackwater entities while the case was active was a fatal impediment to a successful prosecution. The official, comparing the former Blackwater empire to a drug syndicate, added that prosecutors could not get anyone under Prince to testify against him personally. “This is very much the concern,” the former official told The Intercept. “You push the buttons on the company, but the main bad guy gets away and does it again.”

No criminal charges were filed against Prince.

In federal court filings, Prince’s former companies admitted to providing — on numerous occasions during Prince’s tenure — defense goods and services to foreign governments without the required State Department licensing. In some cases, they admitted to providing services even after failing to obtain a license from the State Department.

As part of their settlement with the government, Prince’s companies ultimately agreed to pay nearly $50 million in fines and other penalties and to implement compliance procedures to ensure such illegal activities did not continue. In September 2015, the deferred charges were dismissed after the U.S. government certified that the companies had “fully complied” with all of its conditions.

At that point, Prince was already deep into creating new companies registered outside of the United States and appeared poised to return to the conduct that had marked his time at the helm of Blackwater

The reports from The Intercept and Washington Post have attracted the attention of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), the most avid opponent of Blackwater founder Erik Prince in the U.S. Congress. In an interview at The Intercept she said about Prince,

“He is the kind of unvetted, unscrupulous person that seems to fit very nicely, especially into the kinds of operations that they want done,” [..]

“This is exactly the kind of person who should be excluded from having anything to do with our government, covert or out in public.” [..]

Schakowsky said that the U.S. intelligence community should provide Congress with answers to an array of questions on Prince. “If they have been monitoring, as it seems, Erik Prince for a long time, what have they found? What are the things he is engaged in? What are the things the American people need to know about his activities and how can we disassociate ourselves from him? And how can he be held accountable by the United States for some of the activities he’s been engaged in?”

Prince isn’t the only mercenary advising Trump. Trump’s top foreign policy advisor, Joseph Schmitz, is a former Balckwater executive. For eleven years, up until 2005, Schmitz worked as the Inspector General for the Pentagon during the G. W. Bush administration and left due partly to serious accusations of anti-Semitism and obstruction of justice. In 2007, he was hired by Prince to work as an executive for Blackwater.

The problem with Prince’s involvement and the other unsavory characters that are now crawling the halls of the White House is, that other than a newly awakened press and some very determined Democrats, there is no oversight. Can the American people count on the Republican congress or the likes of Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to investigate the Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump tribe’s involvement in what may well be, not just violation of the Logan Act, but treason?