Blackwater USA has been called the largest private army in the world but little is known about how it operates. The company has a thousand highly trained and well armed security specialists on the ground in Iraq alone, hired by the U.S. government to protect American officials.
But some of those men are now under investigation for the killing of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad last month. It's not the first time the company has been accused of reckless Rambo-like behavior.
The man who founded Blackwater, former Navy SEAL Erik Prince, doesn't like talking to the press but with his company under attack, he agreed to do an interview with 60 Minutes' Lara Logan this past Friday to defend his men and reject charges that they are arrogant guns for hire, mercenaries, accountable to no one.
"I'm an American working for America. Anything we do is to support U.S. policy. You know the definition of a mercenary is a professional soldier that works in the pay of a foreign army. I'm an American working for America," Prince says.
60 Minutes met Prince at his sprawling headquarters, 7,000 acres carved out of swampland in a remote part of North Carolina. This is the staging ground for Blackwater operations in Iraq. The company has a manufacturing plant which makes its own brand of armored personnel carriers. There's also an aircraft hangar where brand-new helicopters are being tuned up to transport and defend State Department personnel in Iraq, which is Blackwater's main mission in the war. The contract is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The company's security contractors, who earn as much as $20,000 a month, have developed a reputation of shooting first and asking questions later.
"Some of the words that are commonly used to describe your guys, at the risk of making you angry, 'blond guerrillas,' 'cowboy attitude,' 'reckless,' 'arrogant,' 'aggressive,' 'excessively aggressive,'" Logan remarks.
"That's not an accurate allegation," Prince says. "Our guys, most of them are decorated military veterans from either Iraq or Afghanistan already."
Asked why he thinks this perception about Blackwater exists, Prince tells Logan, "General misunderstanding because we've not been able to communicate what we do and what we don't do these last few years."
In our interview, Prince was eager to communicate Blackwater's version of what happened when 17 civilians were killed in Baghdad last month. He says it all started with a massive car bomb that exploded outside a building where Blackwater was providing security for an American government official.
What happened next is in dispute. Iraqi survivors and witnesses say a Blackwater convoy opened fire without provocation, shooting and killing unarmed civilians. Erik Prince disagrees.
"Bad things usually don't happen by themselves in Iraq," Prince tells Logan. "Our guys get shot at on an almost daily basis. They don't even record all the times they take fire."
Based on what he knows at this time, Prince doesn't believe that anybody did anything egregiously wrong. "I've not seen…any evidence to support any kind of egregious, malicious, intentional wrong behavior," he tells Logan.
"So, when you hear the Iraqi government complete an investigation in record time, I think, a matter of days and pronounce you 100 percent guilty, what's your reaction?" Logan asks.
"I take it all with a grain of salt because three of our full armored State Department trucks had bullet pockmarks in them. And one of them was even disabled from the enemy small arms fire," Prince says.