Blackwater tied to clandestine CIA raids
Friday, December 11, 2009
Highly trained personnel employed with the private security firm formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide sometimes operated side by side with CIA field officers in Iraq and Afghanistan as the agency undertook missions to kill or capture members of insurgent groups in those countries, according to a former government official and a source familiar with the operations.
The actions taken by the private personnel went beyond the protective role specified in a classified Blackwater contract with the CIA and included active participation in raids overseen by CIA or special forces personnel, these sources said. They emphasized that roles and responsibilities often are blurred or altered in a battlefield setting, and that Blackwater personnel were drawn into the operations on an ad-hoc basis because they were present and had the necessary skills.
Still, the involvement of Blackwater's officers in raids is likely to raise new questions about the degree to which deadly actions in Iraq and Afghanistan were outsourced to contract personnel who operated without direct contractual authority or without the kind of oversight and accountability applied to CIA and military personnel.
CIA Director Leon Panetta earlier this year ordered the agency to terminate many of its contracts with Blackwater, but CIA officials said Thursday that Panetta has ordered a special internal review of the agency's contracts with the company to ensure that its work is strictly security-related -- a review that may wind up shining a new light on intelligence practices during the Bush administration.
The agency still relies on the firm, now named Xe Services, to provide security for agency employees and assets. Panetta told Congress in the summer that he had shut down a CIA assassination program that employed Blackwater personnel in a supporting role. The CIA has publicly stated that the program, which dated from President George W. Bush's first term in office, was never fully implemented and that no one was killed. A House committee is investigating that program.
The CIA declined to comment yesterday on specific intelligence operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Xe Services, said Blackwater was never under contract to participate in covert raids with CIA or Special Forces troops "in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else." Corallo added: "Any allegation to the contrary by any news organization would be false." The New York Times published on its Web site Thursday evening a story saying Blackwater guards had participated in clandestine CIA raids.
Several former CIA counterterrorism officials who were based in Washington at the time said CIA headquarters was not aware of such actions and did not authorize them. They said they knew of occasions when Blackwater personnel took part in firefights while protecting CIA officers undertaking lethal raids, but the officials characterized these actions as defensive, not offensive.
A former intelligence officer who managed covert teams overseas said contractors would have been authorized to use deadly force if fired upon. "That was clearly understood and part of the rules," the official said.
The source familiar with the operations said that they had been reviewed and approved in advance by CIA lawyers, and that agency personnel typically played the dominant role in their planning. Some requests from the field for lethal raids were rejected at CIA headquarters because they posed excessive risks to the U.S. teams or to civilians, or because intelligence experts merely wanted to keep watching the prospective targets.
But when the time came to carry out those raids -- often against figures who were thought to be al-Qaeda leaders -- some CIA field officers assigned responsibilities among the available personnel without regard to which ones were contractors or federal employees, according to the source, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss classified operations.
That meant Blackwater personnel helped to kill some of the targets and did not merely defend the CIA officers taking part in the raids, the source said.
A former agency officer experienced in covert operations in the Middle East said it was common knowledge that military contractors would sometimes participate in missions alongside Special Forces and paramilitary teams. He said the arrangements were made locally and were "practical," because the active-duty forces and contractors typically shared the same training and were used to working together.
For government employees, working with contractors offered ways to circumvent red tape, said the retired officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "There was no bench strength with either the CIA or Special Forces, so sometimes they would turn to contractors, who often had lots of the same skills," the former operative said.
Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, said such informal arrangements would undoubtedly lead to problems because they short-circuit normal chains of command. "Once you cede your authorities, people are no longer restrained by regulations and federal law," Baer said. "There have been abuses; there's no question about it."
The CIA's new review of its Blackwater dealings is only the latest in a series of investigations focused on the firm. Five Blackwater guards are on trial in federal court in the District on manslaughter and other charges in connection with the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in September 2007. The guards' attorneys contend that the government does not have jurisdiction to bring such charges and that the guards' conduct was justified. The Justice Department said in November that it would drop charges against one of the guards. A sixth guard pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and is expected to cooperate with federal prosecutors.
The company is also named in a separate civil case in federal court in Virginia in which 70 Iraqi civilians are alleging that the company engaged in "lawless behavior" and that it covered up killings and hired mercenaries. Attorneys for the company have denied the allegations and sought to dismiss the lawsuit.
In an interview with the magazine Vanity Fair this month, Blackwater's founder and principal owner, Erik Prince -- whose conservative leanings are widely known -- depicted those who revealed the company's links to the CIA as motivated in part by politics. "People acting for political reasons disclosed not only the existence of a very sensitive program but my name along with it," he said.