Reports Revive Debate on Contractor Use

Blackwater security contractors guard then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Baghdad in March 2006.
Blackwater security contractors guard then-U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Baghdad in March 2006. (By Jacob Silberberg -- Associated Press)
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009

The disclosure that the CIA once hired Blackwater USA for elements of an assassination program has brought back into focus the wide range of intelligence and military activities that are being contracted out to private firms.

Some lawmakers have balked at the shift of intelligence operations away from government employees. This week, Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said she has "believed for a long time that the intelligence community is overreliant on contractors to carry out its work." She called it a particular problem "when contractors are used to carry out activities that are inherently governmental."

That phrase, though, is subject to interpretation, and the Office of Management and Budget stipulates that agencies in the executive branch have a good deal of discretion. Moreover, there is no legal prohibition to contracting out what may appear to be a government function.

On Wednesday, after news reports surfaced about the CIA's hiring of Blackwater, former agency director Michael V. Hayden noted that the definition of an "inherently government activity" is quite narrow.

"Actual intelligence analysis, actual intelligence collection are permissible activities for contractors under current OMB guidance," Hayden said.

Hayden did not comment directly on the reports about Blackwater and the assassination program targeting suspected top members of al-Qaeda, but he and current CIA personnel have defended the use of contractors.

"The CIA views contractors as essential to the accomplishment of its mission, bringing unique skills that the agency may need only for limited periods of time," spokesman Paul Gimigliano said in a statement.

He added that contractors provide additional capabilities to staff officers and provide "within the laws and regulations . . . the flexibility required by the changing priorities of intelligence."

In the case of assassination operations, which officials say never passed the planning stage, the involvement of Blackwater has exacerbated the frustration of Democratic lawmakers and others critical of the use of contractors in intelligence work.

Of the scores of private security contractors that have worked for U.S. military and government agencies, Blackwater gained the most notoriety because of accusations its personnel used excessive force against civilians in Iraq. The Justice Department investigated the North Carolina company, now known as Xe Services LLC, for the alleged role of its employees in the slayings of 17 Iraqis in Baghdad in 2007. Five Blackwater guards were indicted last year in connection with those deaths.

The founder of the privately held firm, Erik Prince, is a major financial backer of Republican political candidates and causes. After the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, his company won numerous lucrative contracts to provide protection for U.S. personnel, including a $21 million no-bid contract to protect L. Paul Bremer, head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

The next year, Blackwater secured a $1 billion, five-year State Department contract to guard U.S. diplomats and other dignitaries worldwide.

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