John McCaslin

As Erik Prince rattles off history's roster of "privateers," or independent contractors who helped shape, secure and ultimately spread American democracy — Revolutionary War naval fighter John Paul Jones to the "Flying Tigers" of World War II — a U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue helicopter swoops down over a lake outside his office window and evacuates four souls in distress.

A hundred yards beyond the orange-and-white chopper, green smoke pours from a bombed-out vehicle carrying an American diplomat, who lies injured on the ground. Within seconds, a security team in three four-wheel-drive vehicles speeds in reverse to rescue the official and his entourage.

In the distance one hears the fire of semi-automatic M-4 Carbines — today's weapon of choice in the war against terrorism, although Mr. Prince labels the box-cutter "the most cost-effective weapon in history" — and from behind a stand of trees the reverberation of more powerful munitions.

This, I come to realize, is a typical morning at Blackwater Worldwide's 7,000-acre headquarters and training facility in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina. Here on any given day training is provided to 750 people — 35,000 per year.

Founded by Mr. Prince in 1998, Blackwater has provided instruction to virtually every branch of the U.S. military (not to mention America's allies), including 135,000 U.S. Navy personnel, 8,000 U.S. Coast Guardsmen, even cadets of West Point.

"We fill the gaps," explains the 39-year-old Mr. Prince, a former Navy Seal whose title is chairman and CEO of Blackwater. A graduate of Hillsdale College (his Michigan family previously owned the automobile-parts manufacturer Prince Corporation), he equates Blackwater's emergence to FedEx, which "evolved due to the lack of capabilities and responsiveness of the USPS" [U.S. Postal Service].

"Who do you trust with your overnight package?" Mr. Prince points out.

One Blackwater official put it this way: "When they finally get Osama bin Laden, somebody from Blackwater will be within 50 feet of where he is found."

During my tour of what is the largest private technical training facility in the United States, I encounter SWAT teams from several local police departments and members of the Canadian Armed Forces' elite counter-terrorist/special ops unit — or so I gather from their uniforms.

Blackwater's aviation mechanics, meanwhile, are busy in one aircraft hangar installing the newest high-tech equipment in two Royal Jordanian military helicopters. Soon, Blackwater will begin training Pakistani soldiers and Afghan border police, and providing armed escorts for commercial vessels sailing through the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden.

John McCaslin

John McCaslin is a contributing columnist on and author of Inside The Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops, and Shenanigans from around the Nation's Capital .

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