OYOCK, N.C. - Erik Prince bounded up the stairs of a sand-colored building and paused on the flat roof, a high point of the 7,000-acre facility in North Carolina known as Blackwater Lodge and Training Center.
As owner of Blackwater, he has been the focus of intense scrutiny recently by Congress and critics because the company's private security forces have at times operated with impunity in Iraq, including allegations they killed innocent civilians. But on a steamy afternoon last week, just days after testifying on Capitol Hill, Prince seemed like a king surveying his domain.
Below him was a complex he calls Little Baghdad, a collection of drab structures used to prepare security forces for urban warfare in Iraq and elsewhere. In the distance, a half-dozen battered cars raced around a track in a high-speed motorcade, kicking up dust as they practiced tactics with a role-playing assailant in pursuit.
Blackwater has an airstrip and hangar filled with gleaming helicopters, a manufacturing plant for assembling armored cars, a pound filled with bomb-sniffing dogs, and a lake with mock ships for training sailors. An armory is stacked to the ceiling with rifles. Throughout the place are outdoor ranges where military, intelligence, and law enforcement authorities from around the country practice shooting handguns and assault rifles at automated metal targets made by the firm. An incessant pop, pop, pop fills the air.
There's no other place like Blackwater, at least not in private hands. The complex anchors a global training and security operation that is one of the government's fastest-growing contractors and a fixture and a flashpoint of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a decade, Blackwater's revenue from federal government contracts has grown exponentially, from less than $100,000 to almost $600 million last year. In August, the company won its biggest deal ever, a five-year counternarcotics training contract worth up to $15 billion shared with four other companies.
Blackwater's extraordinary rise would not have been possible without a swirl of historic forces, including sharp cuts in military and security staffing in the 1990s, the administration's drive to outsource government services to the private sector, and the sudden demand for improved security in response to the threat of terrorism.
Some law enforcement officials trained by Blackwater consider the firm a resounding success.
"They're the Cadillac of training services," said J. Adler, national executive vice president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association. "You've got the best of the best teaching close-quarter-combat tactics."
But critics focused more on Blackwater's role in Iraq, where nearly 1,000 of the firm's heavily armed contractors provide security, describe the firm as a private army and Prince as a war profiteer. During a recent hearing, Representative Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, questioned whether Blackwater has "created a shadow military of mercenary forces that are not accountable to United States government or to anyone else."
Prince seemed incredulous anyone would suggest such a thing.
"The idea we have a private army is ridiculous," he said, as a group of sheriff's department deputies cleaned their weapons nearby. "This idea of a private mercenary army is nonsense. These guys have sworn the oath as military or law enforcement persons. These are guys who served voluntarily. They are all Americans, working for Americans, protecting Americans."
The organization most people think of as Blackwater is actually a collection of companies with Prince and his McLean, Va.-based holding company, the Prince Group, at the top. Prince, a former Navy Seal and heir to an industrial fortune, owns everything.
Blackwater Maritime has a 183-foot-long ship for naval training. Two aviation-services businesses operate more than 50 planes and helicopters. Blackwater Manufacturing makes special armored cars the firm hopes to market to the military, as well as moving metal targets for training. Total Intelligence Solutions is led by former CIA officials, including Blackwater executive Cofer Black, who worked on counterterrorism at the CIA and State Department.
More than 100,000 people in the military and in local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies have taken the Blackwater center's courses.
(Correction: Because of an editing error, a story about Blackwater USA in yesterday's Nation pages had a misspelled dateline. The story was filed from Moyock, N.C., where the company is based.)