By Joby Warrick and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, August 20, 2009
A secret CIA program to kill top al-Qaeda leaders with assassination teams was outsourced in 2004 to Blackwater USA, the private security contractor whose operations in Iraq prompted intense scrutiny, according to two former intelligence officials familiar with the events.
The North Carolina-based company was given operational responsibility for targeting terrorist commanders and was awarded millions of dollars for training and weaponry, but the program was canceled before any missions were conducted, the two officials said.
The assassination program -- revealed to Congress in June by CIA Director Leon Panetta -- was initially launched in 2001 as a CIA-led effort to kill or capture top al-Qaeda members using the agency's paramilitary forces. But in 2004, after briefly terminating the program, agency officials decided to revive it under a different code name, using outside contractors, the officials said.
"Outsourcing gave the agency more protection in case something went wrong," said a retired intelligence officer intimately familiar with the assassination program.
The contract was awarded to Blackwater, now known as Xe Services LLC, in part because of its close ties to the CIA and because of its record in carrying out covert assignments overseas, the officials said. The security contractor's senior management has included high-ranking former CIA officials -- among them J. Cofer Black, the agency's former top counterterrorism official, who joined the company in early 2005, three months after retiring from government service.
Blackwater became notorious for a string of incidents in Iraq during which its heavily armed guards were accused of using excessive force. In the deadliest incident, 17 civilians were killed in a Baghdad square by Blackwater guards in September 2007 after the guards' convoy reportedly came under fire.
The plan to kill top al-Qaeda leaders was thrust into the spotlight in July, shortly after Panetta briefed members of two congressional panels about the program. Panetta told House and Senate leaders that he had only recently learned of the program and, upon doing so, had canceled it. Panetta also told lawmakers that he thought they had been inappropriately kept in the dark about the plan -- in part because then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney had directed the CIA not to reveal the program to Congress.
The CIA declined to comment Wednesday about Blackwater's alleged involvement in the program, which was first reported Wednesday night on the Web site of the New York Times. Efforts to reach Blackwater for comment late Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Agency officials again defended Panetta's decision to terminate the effort and notify congressional overseers.
"Director Panetta thought this effort should be briefed to Congress, and he did so," CIA spokesman George Little said. "He also knew it hadn't been successful, so he ended it. Neither decision was difficult. This was clear and straightforward."
The House Intelligence Committee has launched an investigation into whether the CIA broke the law by failing to notify Congress about the program for eight years. Current and former agency officials have disputed claims by some Democratic lawmakers that the withholding of key details of the program was illegal.
"Director Panetta did not tell the committees that the agency had misled the Congress or had broken the law," Little said. "He decided that the time had come to brief Congress on a counterterrorism effort that was, in fact, much more than a PowerPoint presentation."
The effort, known to intelligence officials as the "targeted killing" program, was originally conceived for use in Iraq and Afghanistan, but officials later sought to expand it to other countries in the region, according to a source familiar with its inception.
It was aimed at removing from the battlefield members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates who were judged to be plotting attacks against U.S. forces or interests. The program was initially managed by the CIA's counterterrorism center, but its functions were partly transferred to Blackwater when key officials from the center retired from the CIA and went to work for the private contractor.
Former agency officials have described the assassination program as more aspirational than operational. One former high-ranking intelligence official briefed on the details said there were three iterations of the program over eight years, each with a separate code name. Total spending was well under $20 million over eight years, the official said.
"We never actually did anything," said the former official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program remains highly classified. "It never became a covert action."
A second former official, also intimately familiar with details of the program, said the Blackwater phase involved "lots of time spent training," mostly near the CIA's covert facility near Williamsburg. The official said the teams simulated missions that often involved kidnapping.
"They were involved not only in trying to kill but also in getting close enough to snatch," he said. Among team members there was "much frustration" that the program never reached an operational stage, he said.
The CIA -- and Blackwater -- were not the only agents that sought to covertly kill key members of al-Qaeda using small, highly trained teams. A similar effort, officials say, was undertaken by U.S. Special Forces.
"The targets were generally people on a kill or capture list," said a source familiar with Special Forces operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. "How did people get on the list? Well, if we knew that people were involved in planning attacks, they got on the list. More than half were generally captured. But the decision was made in advance that if they resisted, or if it was necessary for any reason, just kill them."