Blackwater founder Erik Prince represented Donald Trump at a secret overseas meeting convened by the United Arab Emirates in early January, two intelligence sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.
The meeting was first reported by the Washington Post, which said that Prince met with an unnamed Russian emissary close to Vladimir Putin. The Post said the meeting was an effort to convince Russia to stop backing Iran.
One U.S. intelligence official confirmed the Post's account to NBC News, saying the meeting was with a Russian envoy. According to intelligence reports filed at the time, no Trump transition people were directly involved and it is unclear if the meeting was undertaken on behalf of Trump’s people or was a UAE initiative, the official said.
A second source said he believed the meeting was not about Russia. That source, a former intelligence official with close ties to Prince and the UAE, said the subject of the meeting was Middle East policy, to cover Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
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A senior Trump administration official called the suggestion of a Trump-Putin back-channel "ridiculous." Asked about the matter, UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef al Otaiba told NBC News, "No comment." Pressed on whether he could provide any context on any basis, he said, "Not on this one."
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Monday night added, "We are not aware of any meetings and Erik Prince had no role in the transition."
The meeting took place around Jan. 11, The Post reported and NBC News sources confirmed — nine days before Trump’s inauguration — in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean.
The Post said the UAE agreed to broker the meeting in part to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would likely require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions.
Prince, who founded the Blackwater firm that became a private security provider for the U.S. government in Iraq, is the brother of Betsy DeVos, the education secretary in the Trump administration.
He was seen in the Trump transition offices in New York in December. Prince contributed $250,000 last year to support the Trump campaign and pro-Trump super-PACs, according to the Post.
A spokesperson for Prince said, "Erik had no role on the transition team, this is a complete fabrication. The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump. Why is the so called under resourced intelligence community, messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?"
The UAE has been boosting its investments in the Seychelles, Comoros, and other Indian Ocean nations. The president of the Seychelles has a close relationship with the UAE, which is funding a new international airport there.
The United States used to fly Predator drones out of the Seychelles but they were moved to other continental countries to bring them closer to targets. The U.S. and the Seychelles recently participated in a anti-piracy and counter-terrorism exercise called “Cutlass Express” early this year.
Ken Dilanian is a correspondent covering intelligence and national security for the NBC News Investigative Unit.
William M. Arkin
William M. Arkin is a freelance writer who specializes in national security.