Back in January Jeremy Scahill, the journalist who literally wrote the book on Blackwater, the notorious mercenary outfit, reported for the Intercept that Erik Prince, the company's founder, was with Donald Trump and his family at Trump Tower on election night in November. That suggested a degree of intimacy between them that had not been previously revealed. Scahill went on to report that Prince had been advising the Trump team on defense and intelligence matters and had provided input about possible choices to head the Pentagon and the State Department.
To anyone familiar with Prince and his history, this was an ominous sign. Blackwater personnel had been so tarnished by criminal activity during the Iraq War, including convictions for the murders of Iraqi civilians, including children, that Prince had to rename the company more than once and his personal reputation was shredded.
Prince and his family have had a long association with Vice President Mike Pence, however, through mutual religious and political affiliations based on a militant theocratic worldview. Prince and his sister Betsy DeVos, now the secretary of education, were big donors to Trump's campaign. Considering that Trump's knowledge of world affairs can barely fill a shot glass, seeing Prince among his inner circle of advisers is unnerving to say the least.
While it has been clear for some time that Trump was not the isolationist that people wanted to believe he was, Prince represents something much more malevolent than simple "realism." This is a man whose loyalties are anything but clear. In fact, Scahill and Matthew Cole reported last month that Prince is under investigation by the Justice Department and other federal agencies for money laundering and attempts to broker military services to foreign governments.
According to their reporting, the government has had Prince under surveillance for more than a year for suspected criminal activity:
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.
One of their sources told them, "Erik wants to be a real, no-shit mercenary. He’s off the rails exposing many U.S. citizens to criminal liabilities. Erik hides in the shadows."
The details of this investigation are astonishing. According to Scahill and Cole, as recently as January Prince was working on this mercenary project, which includes alleged money laundering for the Libyan government through a Chinese investment bank. The source with close knowledge of Prince's activities told the Intercept, “If Erik is fucking around with the Chinese, I don’t even want to imagine what the U.S. government is thinking about." This is the same time period during which, according to The Washington Post, Prince met with a representative of Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish a secret back channel of communication with President Trump. He's a busy guy.
Prince is publicly wringing his hands over the fact that his movements as a private citizen were being monitored by the government, but this is hardly shocking: He was under criminal investigation. Indeed, the Intercept article said most of his business associates were warned by the government to cease doing business with him. Everyone who knows Prince must assume he's on the radar of every intelligence service in the world at this point.
He discussed possible government appointees with people in the private sector, one person said. Prince himself told several people that while he was not offering his advice in any official capacity, his role was significant.
If it weren't for the deep connections between Prince and Pence and the appointment of his sister, one might be inclined to think Prince was simply embellishing his closeness to power. But the Bloomberg article contains an interesting anecdote relayed by someone who overheard a conversation that suggests Prince was a familiar person to members of Trump's transition team:
In one informal discussion in late November, Prince spoke openly with two members of Trump’s transition team on a train bound from New York to Washington. He boarded the same Acela as Kellyanne Conway and they sat together. Joining the conversation at one point was Kevin Harrington, a longtime associate of Trump adviser Peter Thiel who is now on the National Security Council. They discussed, in broad terms, major changes the incoming administration envisioned for the intelligence community, as recounted by a person on the train who overheard their conversation.
It's frightening to imagine how someone like Prince may have influenced Trump's thinking. We know that last July he appeared on Steve Bannon's radio show and recommended that Trump re-create the former CIA assassination ring known as the Phoenix program, as a means of fighting ISIS. He said:
It was a vicious, but very effective, kill/capture program in Vietnam that destroyed the Viet Cong as a military force. That’s what needs to be done to the funders of Islamic terror. And that would be even the — the wealthy radical Islamist billionaires funding it from the Middle East and any of the other illicit activities they’re in.
One would hope any president would dismiss such nonsense but according to Scahill, this plan was actually implemented during the George W. Bush administration under the authority of Dick Cheney! (Former President Barack Obama's CIA director has said the program was shut down during his tenure without having killed anyone.) It certainly sounds like something Donald Trump would also find intriguing, and Scahill suspects that something like that could be back on the agenda.
Since the president insists that U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy must be impenetrable and unpredictable, we really have no way of knowing. Our best hope of keeping Erik Prince away from the White House is for the media to continue to shine a light on his activities. Prince is the last person we need whispering in Donald Trump's ear.