Besieged by criminal inquiries and congressional investigators, how could the world's most controversial private security company drum up new business? By battling pirates, of course.

WASHINGTON — Besieged by criminal inquiries and congressional investigators, how could the world’s most controversial private security company drum up new business? By battling pirates on the high seas, of course.

In late-2008, Blackwater Worldwide, already under fire because of accusations of abuses by its security guards in Iraq and Afghanistan, reconfigured a 183-foot oceanographic research vessel into a pirate-hunting ship for hire and then began looking for business from shipping companies seeking protection from Somali pirates.

The company’s chief executive officer, Erik Prince, was planning a trip to Djibouti for a promotional event, and Blackwater was hoping the U.S. Embassy there would help out, according to a secret State Department cable, one of the thousands released this week by the website WikiLeaks.

But with the Obama administration just weeks old, U.S. diplomats in Djibouti faced a problem. They are supposed to be advocates for U.S. businesses, but this was Blackwater, a company that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had proposed banning from war zones when she was a presidential candidate.

The embassy “would appreciate Department’s guidance on the appropriate level of engagement with Blackwater,” wrote James Swan, the U.S. ambassador in Djibouti, in a cable sent Feb. 12, 2009. Blackwater’s plans to enter the anti-piracy business have been previously reported, but not the U.S. government’s concern about the endeavor.

According to that cable, Blackwater had outfitted its U.S.-flagged ship with .50-caliber machine guns and a small, unarmed drone aircraft. The ship, named the McArthur, would carry a crew of 33 to patrol the Gulf of Aden for 30 days before returning to Djibouti to resupply. And the company had already determined its rules of engagement.

“Blackwater does not intend to take any pirates into custody, but will use lethal force against pirates if necessary,” the cable said.

At the time, the company was still awaiting approvals from its lawyers for its planned operations.

Lawsuits filed later by crew members on the McArthur made life on the ship sound little improved from the days of Blackbeard.

One said, according to legal documents, that the ship’s captain, who had been drinking during a port call in Jordan, ordered him “placed in irons” (handcuffed to a towel rack) after he was accused of giving an unauthorized interview to his hometown newspaper in Minnesota. The captain, according to the lawsuit, also threatened to place the sailor in a straitjacket. Another crew member, who is black, claimed in court documents that he was repeatedly subjected to racial epithets.

In the end, Blackwater Maritime Security Services found no treasure in the pirate-chasing business, never attracting any clients. And the Obama administration chose not to sever the U.S. government’s relationship with the North Carolina-based firm, which has collected more than $1 billion in security contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Blackwater renamed itself Xe Services, and earlier this year it won a $100 million contract from the CIA to protect the spy agency’s bases in Afghanistan.