Erik Prince, founder of the private security firm Blackwater, filed a defamation lawsuit against The Intercept last month over an article published in 2020 that examined his efforts to sell military services to a sanctioned Russian mercenary company.
The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York after an earlier suit brought in Wyoming was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. In the complaint, Prince claimed that The Intercept published “false or misleading statements about him and his business” and accused him of “being a criminal and a traitor.”
The lawsuit alleges that The Intercept published false and defamatory statements “that Mr. Prince ‘met with a top official of Russia’s Wagner Group and offered his mercenary forces to support the firm’s operation in Libya and Mozambique.’” The story included a denial by Prince’s attorney. It also cited three unnamed sources saying that Wagner did not do business with Prince.
The Wagner Group is a Russian semi-private military force that often operates at the behest of the Russian Ministry of Defense. Wagner’s fighters have been deployed to conflicts around the world in recent years, including in Syria, where dozens of them were killed in a U.S. military operation in 2018. Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former military contractor, described the Wagner Group in the story as an “instrument of Russian policy.” Because the Trump administration had sanctioned the group in 2017 over its role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, any business dealings with Wagner could have exposed Prince to legal liability, the story noted.
In his complaint, Prince described the story as “entirely fictional.” He denied meeting with the Wagner official or offering his services to the group. He accused the reporters of acting with “malice” for publishing the story after Prince’s lawyer had denied it. He also accused The Intercept, which has reported extensively on Prince’s business and political activities, of engaging in a “crusade” to discredit him and of a “history of false reporting” about him. Prince has not sued The Intercept in connection to any other stories.
In a statement, The Intercept said that the story is accurate. “Erik Prince’s lawsuit against The Intercept is without merit and is a bald attempt to intimidate us and discourage us from reporting on his mercenary activities,” wrote Betsy Reed, The Intercept’s editor-in-chief. “We will continue to report on his newsworthy ventures as a peddler of private military services around the world. This case is about press freedom and we will fight to defend our right to report on abuses of power by wealthy, well-connected individuals like Erik Prince. We stand by our reporting.”
Prince filed the earlier defamation suit in connection to the same story last year, but a federal judge in Wyoming dismissed it because none of the defendants had ties to the state, where Prince owns a home. In his order to dismiss, U.S. District Court Judge Alan Johnson noted that The Intercept, which is incorporated in Delaware, primarily operates from New York.
“The subject matter is national security and international relations, which are clearly issues of concern to a national and worldwide audience, not a Wyoming audience specifically,” Johnson wrote. He added that Prince may have difficulties “proving the merits of his claims” in other courts.
Prince’s attorneys also criticized The Intercept for attributing the story to unnamed sources, a relatively common practice in investigative journalism. In the complaint, Prince’s attorneys cast doubt about the story’s sourcing and accused The Intercept of basing the story on the “unsubstantiated claims of anonymous sources — if those anonymous sources even exist.”
In court filings in Wyoming, The Intercept argued that Prince’s “real motive in bringing this lawsuit” was to uncover the identities of the story’s anonymous sources. The Intercept’s attorneys told the court that none of the sources were based in Wyoming.
Blackwater changed names twice before merging with other private security groups to form Constellis Holdings in 2014. As Blackwater, it became an emblem of the abuses of private security firms after some of its contractors killed 17 civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007. Four Blackwater guards were ultimately convicted for 14 of the killings, but former President Donald Trump pardoned them shortly before leaving office.
Prince, a former Navy SEAL, was a vocal Trump supporter and an informal adviser to his administration. During Trump’s presidency, Prince seized on his connections to him to make a comeback — pitching his mercenary services to a host of private and state-connected potential clients around the world. Prince has denied advising the White House.