Academi LLC is a private military company that was formerly called Blackwater Worldwide and later Xe Services LLC. It adopted the name Academi in December 2011. At one point during the Iraq War, the company was the largest State Department security contractor, providing security services in Iraq and other "war on terror" combat zones.
Founded in 1997 by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL who left the company in 2010, the firm has been notorious for its various high-profile scandals—including the massacre of civilians in Iraq by Blackwater employees, as well as numerous criminal allegations ranging from fraud to weapons trafficking.
In August 2012, Academi agreed to pay a $7.5-million fine to settle a list of federal criminal charges, including "possessing automatic weapons in the United States without registration, lying to federal firearms regulators about weapons provided to the king of Jordan, passing secret plans for armored personnel carriers to Sweden and Denmark, and illegally shipping body armor overseas."
In early 2013, the U.S. government dropped most of its remaining weapons trafficking charges against the company, settling for misdemeanor pleas from former president Gary Jackson and another former executive. The company's defense against the charges—which included selling illegally modified firearms overseas and hiding automatic weapons from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, among others—was reportedly less concerned with denying the accusations than with suggesting that the company had carried them out on the government's behalf.
"[A]ccording to the documents Blackwater submitted in its defense—as well as an email exchange I had recently with Prince—the contractor's relationship with the CIA was far deeper than most observers thought," Eli Lake reported. "'Blackwater's work with the CIA began when we provided specialized instructors and facilities that the Agency lacked,' Prince told me recently, in response to written questions. 'In the years that followed, the company became a virtual extension of the CIA because we were asked time and again to carry out dangerous missions, which the Agency either could not or would not do in-house.'"
The compant reportedly "provided the court with classified emails, memoranda, contracts, and photos" to bolster its claims that it had performed sensitive missions, made arms purchases, and even entertained foreign officials like King Abdullah of Jordan on behalf of the CIA. It also provided "sealed depositions from top CIA executives from the Directorate of Operations, testifying that Blackwater provided training and weapons for agency operations." Complicating matters, Blackwater apparently provided some services to the government free of charge and without a contract, for which Prince cited his "patriotic duty" in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. "Blackwater carried out countless life-threatening missions for the CIA," Prince complained. "And, in return, the government chose to prosecute my people for doing exactly what was asked of them."
In October 2013, federal prosecutors brought new charges against four former Blackwater employees accused of massacring Iraqi civilians in Baghad's Nisour Square, a 2007 incident in which Blackwater employees killed 17 civilians and wounded dozens more in an apparently indiscriminate attack. Blackwater claimed that its employees were involved in a firefight—a claim disputed by some present at the scene—and had behaved appropriately. In 2009, a federal judge dismissed the initial charges, arguing that the evidence against the defendants had been tainted by the improper use of witness testimony by federal prosuectors. But a subsequent court disagreed, and the Justice Department proceeded to bring new charges. "A limited number of members of the Blackwater team unleashed powerful sniper fire, machine guns, and grenade launchers on ordinary people going about their daily lives," read a statement from a federal prosector. "This prosecution demonstrates our commitment to upholding the rule of law even in times of war."
Blackwater was notable for its close connections to rightist political factions in the United States. Founder Eric Prince was born to a wealthy conservative family in Michigan with deep ties to right-wing politics (his late father Edgar helped set up the Family Research Council, a Christian Right think tank and lobby group where Erik interned in college). Staunchly conservative, Prince has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party, religious groups, and conservative organizations (often through the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation), including to the American Enterprise Institute and the Alliance Defense Fund.
In 2006, Blackwater hired Cofer BlackCofer Black, an ex-head of the CIA's Counterterrorist Center who served as an adviser to the 2012 Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan presidential campaign, to be its vice chairman. Black resigned from the company in 2008, allegedly after learning of the company's bribing of Iraqi officials as protests came to a head over the Nisour Square massacre.
In June 2012, Academi announced that retired Gen. Jack Keane, a high-profile promoter of various U.S. foreign military interventions who is close to key neoconservative ideologues, had been named a "strategic adviser" to the firm. Company board member and former White House Counsel Jack Quinn called Keane "an American hero" whose "commitment to our national security is second to none." As an adviser to Academi, Keane works for a company that stands to profit from some of the policies Keane has publicly promoted.
As of early 2014, John Ashcroft, the controversial former attonrey general in the first George W. Bush administration and member of the conservative judicial group Federalist Society, served on ACADEMI's board of directors.
In February 2009, shortly after Iraqi officials and the U.S. State Department announced that they would not renew their working relationship with Blackwater in Iraq, the company changed its name to Xe (pronounced "z"). The subsidiary responsible for carrying out much of the company's overseas and training work, Blackwater Lodge & Training Center, was taken over by the company U.S. Training Center Inc.
At the time of the rebranding, the company was facing numerous investigations and lawsuits stemming from its work. In late 2009, the Justice Department opened an inquiry into whether Blackwater had offered bribes to Iraqi officials in an attempt to secure future operations. In early 2010, Sen. Carl Levin, who advised the Pentagon to reconsider renewing a lucrative contract to train Afghan police forces, spearheaded hearings by the Senate Armed Services Committee into whether the company had engaged in reckless behavior during pervious training programs in Afghanistan. That same month, Xe sold its aviation division to AAR Corp for $200 million. In April 2010, five former employees, including former company president Gary Jackson, were indicted on charges of conspiring to violate federal firearms laws.
In changing its name, the company hoped both to dispel some of the controversy that has been associated with the Blackwater brand and to shift its focus away from the frontline roles that had resulted in so many scandals. As part of this effort, the company deleted from its website several informational pages, including the company history. In a memo announcing the new name and re-branded image, then-Blackwater President Gary Jackson said that the company was seeking to shift away from private security contracts, like those it had with the State Department to provide protection to U.S. government employees, to focus more on training and logistics. "This company will continue to provide personnel protective services for high-threat environments when needed by the U.S. government, but its primary mission will be operating our training facilities around the world, including the flagship campus in North Carolina," said Jackson.
In December 2011, the company announced that it was changing its name to Academi LLC "to better communicate the new company's focus on future growth." In a press release, company president and CEO Ted Wright said, "The ACADEMI name communicates both our legacy and where we are going as a company in the future. This is more than a simple name change. Rather it is a reflection of the changes we have made while retaining those elements that made us who we are today—the best in our industry." Explaining the significance of the new name, the company's website stated: "Our name comes from the Greek akademia, an institution founded by Plato and rooted in higher wisdom and skill, producing both thinkers and warriors alike. ACADEMI is that institution today."
Controversy and Accountability
Business at Blackwater boomed after the 9/11 attacks. According to an October 2007 congressional memorandum, Blackwater's government contracts grew "exponentially during the Bush Administration, particularly since the start of the war in Iraq." In 2000, the corporation only earned $200,000 in federal contracts, compared with $25 million in 2003 and $1 billion in late 2007. In 2007, Prince reported that at least 90 percent of Blackwater's revenue came from government contracts, two-thirds of which were no-bid.
Much of Blackwater's revenue during this period came from security contracts for guarding high-profile officials and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. From 2001 through 2006, Blackwater had $832 million in two State Department contracts for providing "protective services in Iraq."
But the company's rise in fame was accompanied by increasing public and official scrutiny. In October 2007, for example, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform questioned the cost-effectiveness of using Blackwater forces instead of U.S. troops, stating, "Blackwater charges the government $1,222 per day for the services of a private military contractor. This is equivalent to $445,000 per year, over six times more than the cost of an equivalent U.S. soldier."
In March 2004, Blackwater made headlines when Iraqi insurgents attacked and killed four Blackwater employees in Fallujah, hanging their bodies from a bridge. A congressional investigation into the ambush concluded that Blackwater had sent the guards into the city under-equipped and under-staffed.
In Fall 2007, the company was implicated in an alleged massacre when Blackwater workers guarding a State Department convoy opened fire in Baghdad's Nisour Square, killing 17 innocent Iraqi civilians. A committee document issued before the subsequent congressional hearings "depict[ed] the security contractor as being staffed with reckless, shoot-first guards who were not always sober and did not always stop to see who or what was hit by their bullets," according to the New York Times. In December 2009, more than two years after the incident, six Blackwater employees were indicted for 14 counts of manslaughter, among other charges. However, the charges were overturned a few weeks later by a federal judge who claimed that the government used compelled statements to make its case against the guards.
The outcry over the Fallujah and Nisour Square incidents sparked public debate about the role of private military companies in the Iraq War and the broader war on terror, notably over issues of accountability. According to Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), "their actions may not be subject to constitutional limitations that apply to both federal and state officials and employees—including First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights to be free from illegal searches and seizures. Unlike police officers, they are not trained in protecting constitutional rights."
In a widely noted 2008 book titled Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, journalist Jeremy Scahill reported, "With almost no public debate, the Bush administration has outsourced to the private sector many of the functions historically held by the military. In turn, these private companies are largely unaccountable to the US taxpayers from whom they draw their profits. As the Times of London put it [in 2004], 'in Iraq, the postwar business boom is not oil. It is security.'" Blackwater repeatedly refused congressional requests for information on its contracts, saying the documents are classified.
In 2008, the Associated Press reported that "Blackwater and other contractors operate in a legal gray area. They are immune from prosecution in Iraqi courts. If the Justice Department wants to bring criminal charges such as assault, manslaughter or murder in a U.S. court, prosecutors would have to do so under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. That would require the government to show that State Department contractors were 'supporting the mission of the Department of Defense overseas.' Blackwater, however, claims that its contract guarding diplomats was purely a State Department function, one independent from the Pentagon. That could give Blackwater the legal cover it needs to avoid charges against its employees."
In addition to its ethical scandals, some observers also accused Blackwater of mixing its business interests with its executives' religious motivations. According to Scahill, "What is particularly scary about Blackwater's role in a war that President [George W.] Bush labeled a 'crusade' is that the company's leading executives are dedicated to a Christian-supremacist agenda." Prince is a staunch Catholic; Joseph Schmitz, another top Blackwater executive, said in 2004 that "no American today should ever doubt that we hold ourselves accountable to the rule of law under God. Here lies the fundamental difference between us and the terrorists." In his official biography Schmitz proclaimed membership in the Order of Malta, a Christian militia formed in the 11th century with the goal of defending "territories that the Crusaders had conquered from the Moslems."
No More Security?
In July 2008, several months before it officially changed its name to Xe, the company said it intended to pull back from the security business. The AP reported, "Blackwater executives say they have unfairly become a symbol for all contractors in Iraq and thus the company is a target for those opposed to the war. It will continue guarding U.S. officials in Iraq but its future will be focused on training, aviation and logistics." Prince told the AP, "The experience we've had would certainly be a disincentive to any other companies that want to step in and put their entire business at risk." Blackwater, according to the AP report, "expanded its aviation division, which provides airplane and helicopter maintenance and also drops supplies into hard-to-reach military bases. … [A] large map in the company's hangar shows units based across the world, from Africa to the Middle East to Australia."
According to a 2009 Wired magazine story, Blackwater branched out into a range of new activities in its efforts to reinvent itself, including offering protection to commercial ships, "making custom rifles, marketing spy blimps, assembling a fleet of light attack aicraft, and billing itself as experts in everything from cargo handling to dog training to construction management." It also began offering firearms and self-defense classes to professional athletes.
However, despite its multiple rebrandings and its purported shift away from security services, the company appears to have continued to secure security contracts for more clandestine work. A division called the "Other Government Agency," and later XPG, reportedly received $17,000 per day to provide security at seven U.S. Special Forces locations along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border as a part of a classified contract, according to a 2010 report by National Public Radio. Previously, in late 2009, the New York Times reported that the contractor was involved in CIA "snatch and grab" operations, as well as in missions to kill and capture militants.