Blackwater tries to bury its ugly past

Founder Erik Prince has seen his security firm’s reputation fall

Blackwater tries to bury its ugly past

The name Blackwater will always conjure up images of the ugliest hours of the Iraq war. A year and a half after a bloodbath involving Blackwater guards left 17 civilians dead in a Baghdad square, the personal security company’s name remains synonymous with lawless destruction and trigger-happy cowboys. So much so, in fact, that the firm has adopted a new identity. Blackwater Worldwide is buried. In its place is Xe (pronounced “Zee”).

The recent announcement that Blackwater was rebranding its two dozen business units to “define the company as what it is today and not what it used to be,” according to spokesperson Anne Tyrrell, is supposed to reflect Blackwater’s new focus as it moves away from personal security. But it will take more than a new name to save the North Carolina-based firm from its troubles.

Iraq’s government, still bitter about the 2007 slaughter in Baghdad, said at the end of January that it is refusing to renew Blackwater’s operating licence. At the same time, the U.S. State Department washed its hands of the firm by announcing that it would not renew its contract to protect diplomats (reportedly worth $250 million per year). Meanwhile, the now-former guards who allegedly opened fire in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square are facing 14 counts of manslaughter, 20 counts of attempted manslaughter, and one count of using a machine gun to commit a crime. Five pleaded not guilty in February, while a sixth is co-operating with the government.

Given that history, security expert Robert Young Pelton says the rebranding will do little to improve the company’s reputation. “The change in name is really meant to hide the failure of its security provision department,” he says. But “Blackwater will still exist because all the people who work for Blackwater don’t actually work for Blackwater—they’re contractors. It’s not like they go away.”