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Is Erik Prince Threatening the U.S. Government?

Did Blackwater's owner speak to <i>Vanity Fair</i> to send a message to the Justice Department about government secrets he can reveal?

The in-depth Vanity Fair profile of the infamous owner of Blackwater, Erik Prince, is remarkable on many levels -- not least among them that Prince appeared to give the story's author, former CIA lawyer Adam Ciralsky, unprecedented access to information about sensitive, classified and lethal operations not only of Prince's forces, but Prince himself. In the article, Prince is revealed not just as owner of a company that covertly provided contractors to the CIA for drone bombings and targeted assassinations, but as an actual CIA asset himself. While the story appears to be simply a profile of Prince, it might actually be the world's most famous mercenary's insurance policy against future criminal prosecution. The term of art for what Prince appears to be doing in the VF interview is graymail: a legal tactic that has been used for years by intelligence operatives or assets who are facing prosecution or fear they soon will be. In short, these operatives or assets threaten to reveal details of sensitive or classified operations in order to ward off indictments or criminal charges, based on the belief that the government would not want these details revealed. "The only reason Prince would do this [interview] is that he feels he is in very serious jeopardy of criminal charges," says Scott Horton, a prominent national security and military law expert. "He absolutely would not do these things otherwise."

There is no doubt Prince is in the legal cross-hairs: There are reportedly two separate Grand Juries investigating Blackwater on a range of serious charges, ranging from gun smuggling to extralegal killings; multiple civil lawsuits alleging war crimes and extrajudicial killings; and Congress is investigating the assassination program in which Prince and his company were central players. "Obviously, Prince does know a lot and the government has to realize that once they start prosecuting him," says Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "In some ways, graymail is what any good defense lawyer would do. This is something that's in your arsenal."

Perhaps the most prominent case of graymail was by Oliver North when he and his lawyers used it to force dismissal of the most serious charges against him stemming from his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair. In another case, known as Khazak-gate, a US businessman, James Giffen, allegedly paid $78 million in bribes to former Khazakh Prime Minister Nurlan Balgimbayev in an attempt to win contracts for western oil companies to develop the Tengiz oil fields in the 1990s. In 1993, he was charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the largest overseas bribery case in history. After Giffen was indicted, he claimed that if he did what he was accused of, he did it in the service of US intelligence agencies. The case has been in limbo ever since.

"This is as old as the hills as a tactic and it has a long track record of being very effective against the government," says Horton. "It's basically a threat to the government that if you prosecute me, I'll disclose all sorts of national security-sensitive information. The bottom line here is it's like an act of extortion or a threat: you do X and this is what I'm going to do." Horton said that the Vanity Fair article was Prince "essentially putting out the warning to the Department of Justice: 'You prosecute me and all this stuff will be out on the record.'"

According to Ciralsky's article, Prince was a "full-blown asset" of "the C.I.A.'s National Resources Division [which] recruited Prince in 2004 to join a secret network of American citizens with special skills or unusual access to targets of interest:"