Erik Prince, founder of the global security firm Blackwater USA, is suing the investigative news site The Intercept for defamation over an April 13 article headlined “Erik Prince Offered Lethal Services to Sanctioned Russian Mercenary Firm Wagner,” his lawyer said on Tuesday.
The article claimed provocatively that “[a]ny business relationship between Prince and Wagner would, in effect, make the influential Trump administration adviser a subcontractor to the Russian military.”
The lawyer, Matthew L. Schwartz of Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, told RealClearInvestigations that Prince had “no choice but to defend himself” after having repeatedly “turned the other cheek as publications, The Intercept first among them, have smeared him.”
“This story was different,” the lawyer continued. “The Intercept accused Erik Prince of being a criminal and a traitor based on dishonest and biased anonymous sources that it made no effort to corroborate.”
Asked to respond, Rodrigo Brandão, The Intercept's director of communications, said "We will not comment until we are able to review any lawsuit."
Schwartz confirmed that the complaint, a copy of which was provided in advance to RealClearInvestigations, was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the state where Prince “conducts the majority of his business.” Seeking a jury trial, the complaint names The Intercept; the publication’s corporate parent, First Look Media, founded by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar; and the reporters who wrote the story, Alex Emmons and Matthew Cole.
Prince, a retired Navy SEAL and brother of Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has been a bête noire of the left and a focus of controversy for years. His critics have long questioned the operations of his since-rebranded Blackwater private security firm in global flashpoints, notably in support of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. A supporter of President Trump, Prince has also drawn flak as a friend of top 2016 Trump campaign adviser Steve Bannon. A year ago, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee accused Prince of lying to Congress about a conversation in the Seychelles with a Russian banker close to Vladimir Putin. Prince has even been accused – in an allegation evocative of Cary Grant in the movie “North by Northwest” – of illegally converting crop-dusters into “attack aircraft.” But according to his lawyer, the most recent allegations in The Intercept were the last straw.
According to the April 13 article, Prince – whose main businesses are a commodities firm called Frontier Resource Group and a security and logistics company, Frontier Services Group -- offered to supplement Russian mercenaries with his own contract soldiers. Prince “has sought in recent months to provide military services to a sanctioned Russian mercenary firm in at least two African conflicts,” wrote Emmons and Cole. By way of evidence, The Intercept cited “three people with knowledge of the efforts.”
The Intercept did not identify those people. Its piece was not heavy on other specifics, either. When did Prince meet with Wagner? “[E]arlier this year.” Who did Prince meet? An unidentified “top official of Russia’s Wagner Group.” Where did they meet? The story doesn’t say, and deeper into the article The Intercept suggests there was no meeting, that Prince merely “sent a proposal.” This was “according to two people familiar with Prince’s offer.”
The backdrop to this tale of intrigue is that mercenaries working for Wagner tried last September to project Russian power in Mozambique. When they took it on the chin, according to The Intercept, “Prince sent a proposal to the Russian firm offering to supply a ground force as well as aviation-based surveillance.” The Intercept attributed this information to “documents viewed by The Intercept and a person familiar with Prince’s proposal.”
Yet the Intercept provides no evidence that any such Prince-led mercenary army or air force was ever deployed. Perhaps this was because “Wagner officials said they are not interested in working with Prince.” This last assertion was attributed to “three people familiar with their decision.”
It’s a long shot for a public figure to win a defamation lawsuit. Someone regularly in the news has to prove that what has been written about him is not only false and injurious to his reputation, but that it was written with malice, a legal concept defined in Supreme Court case law as a “reckless disregard for the truth.” Prince’s lawsuit claims the article met that standard. It states that the Intercept reporters knew prior to publication“that the allegations claiming that Mr. Prince met with the Wagner Group and solicited the Wagner Group for business were false.”
The lawsuit accuses The Intercept of purposefully making “defamatory statements … as part of a long scheme by the Defendants to knowingly publish false, misleading, and defamatory statements about Mr. Prince in order to further the Defendants’ political agenda, boost The Intercept’s readership, and reap the associated financial gains, including the continued viability of the publication.”