Blackwater Worldwide, its reputation in tatters and its lucrative government contracts in jeopardy, is mounting an aggressive legal, political and public relations counterstrike.
It has hired a bipartisan stable of big-name Washington lawyers, lobbyists and press advisers, including the public relations powerhouse Burson-Marsteller, which was brought in briefly, but at a critical moment, to help Blackwater’s chairman, Erik D. Prince, prepare for his first Congressional hearing.
Blackwater for a time retained Kenneth D. Starr, the former Whitewater independent counsel, and Fred F. Fielding, who is now the White House counsel, to help handle suits filed by the families of slain Blackwater employees.
Another outside public relations specialist, Mark Corallo, former chief spokesman for Attorney General John Ashcroft, quit working for Blackwater late last year because he said he was uncomfortable with what he termed some executives’ cowboy mentality.
Blackwater is pursuing a bold legal strategy, going so far in a North Carolina case as to seek a gag order on the lawyers for the families of four Blackwater employees killed in an ambush in Falluja in 2004. The company argues that the dead men had signed contracts that prohibited them from talking to the press about Blackwater and that this restriction extended to their lawyers and their estates even after death.
One of Blackwater’s Washington lawyers is Beth Nolan, who served as White House counsel for the last two years of the Clinton administration. (Ms. Nolan is leaving private practice at the end of November to become general counsel at George Washington University.) Another is Stephen M. Ryan, a top white-collar defense lawyer and former general counsel of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.
The company’s chief Washington lobbyist is Paul Behrends, who worked at the now-defunct Alexander Strategy Group, a Republican firm with close ties to the jailed lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Mr. Behrends, who now works at C & M Capitolink, a Washington lobbying firm, declined to discuss his work for Blackwater, which has paid his company $300,000 since last year.
Anne E. Tyrrell, the company’s chief spokeswoman (and the daughter of R. Emmett Tyrrell, the longtime editor of the conservative magazine American Spectator), said that Blackwater was more comfortable operating in the shadows, but that it decided that it had to strike back publicly. She said, however, that she was not sure that the blitz was succeeding.
“It’s not as if we woke up one day and said it’s time to get out there,” she said. “We were put there. But there’s only so much you can do in one month, as opposed to 10 years of largely remaining silent.”
“There’s still a lot of misinformation out there,” she added, “but I think we have taken positive steps toward correcting the record.”
In the aftermath of the Sept. 16 shootings in Baghdad that Iraqi authorities said left 17 Iraqis dead, the formerly reclusive Mr. Prince has conducted a series of media interviews intended to polish Blackwater’s tarnished brand. The company has changed the name of its major operating division from Blackwater USA to Blackwater Worldwide and toned down its warlike logo. It has sent out a mass e-mail message to workers, suppliers and clients hoping to inspire them to send letters to members of Congress and make other public statements of support.
As reports poured out of Baghdad about the September shootings by several Blackwater guards, the company felt it could not adequately defend itself. The company operates under confidentiality agreements with the State Department, which employs 845 Blackwater guards to protect its diplomats in Iraq. But after Mr. Prince testified for more than three hours before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Oct. 2, the company said it felt free to speak out.
“It was no picnic to keep our contractual obligations not to talk,” said one person close to Blackwater, who insisted on not being named. “We wrote the book on how not to get good P.R.”
In the days leading up to the hearing before the oversight panel, which is led by Representative Henry A. Waxman, a liberal California Democrat who has no love for Blackwater, the company hired Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations firm. Blackwater said it hired the company on a temporary basis to help prepare Mr. Prince for his testimony.
Mark J. Penn, Burson-Marsteller’s chairman and a senior adviser to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, said in an e-mail message that he had no direct contact with Blackwater and that the work was landed by BKSH, a subsidiary. BKSH is a political consulting firm led by Charles R. Black Jr., an adviser to President Bush and his father, and R. Scott Pastrick, a top Democratic fund-raiser. Mr. Penn said that a BKSH associate had worked briefly in Iraq and met several Blackwater personnel, who steered the work to his firm.
In the days following the hearing, Blackwater began its media offensive. Because Mr. Prince had been required to speak publicly about his firm before Congress, Blackwater officials reasoned that they could now go to the news media.
They mounted an impressive publicity campaign, granting a series of interviews with Mr. Prince in quick succession to, among others, the CBS program “60 Minutes”; CNN; NBC; PBS; The Washington Post; and The Detroit Free Press. The central message in all of the interviews was that Blackwater was doing only what the State Department asked it to do, that it had not lost a single official under its protection while 30 Blackwater guards had been killed, and that if the company lost its $1.2 billion contract with the State Department it would find other ways to make money.
Blackwater officials clearly believe that Mr. Prince, a young, clean-cut former member of the Navy Seals, is their best asset as they try to dig out from their public relations hole. “It just got to the point where we all decided it was time to defend the company and there is no one better to do that than Mr. Prince,” Ms. Tyrrell said.
Mr. Prince’s appearances helped dispel the notion, as one Blackwater insider put it, “that he would be some guy with a peg leg and a parrot on his shoulder and an eye patch.”
The company also released two detailed reports about two of its most controversial operations, the Falluja ambush in 2004 and the crash of a Blackwater-operated military flight in Afghanistan that same year that killed six people. The papers were intended to rebut staff reports from Mr. Waxman’s committee. The company, citing current investigations, has not produced a similar report about the September shootings in Baghdad.
But the company still suffers from the image that its workers are reckless gunslingers charging around Iraq with impunity.
Mr. Corallo, the former Blackwater public relations adviser, said this image was due in part to the company’s culture and attitude.
He said he quit working for the company last year because of personality conflicts with some top executives, although he praised Mr. Prince as a “visionary.”
“They do have a few people at the upper levels of Blackwater who are a little bit unsophisticated and rather disdainful of anything that goes to oversight and due process,” he said. “The reason they get the caricature that’s been created is that they do have a few cowboys in their midst.”
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