Pentagon to investigate intelligence unit that allegedly used contractors

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Pentagon said Monday that it was looking into allegations that a Defense Department official had set up an intelligence unit staffed by contractors to hunt insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan under the guise of social and cultural information-gathering.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman declined to confirm or deny whether a criminal investigation had been opened into activities by Michael D. Furlong, a former Special Operations officer who now works as a senior civilian officer for the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Tex.

Furlong's operation, which included numerous former intelligence and Special Operations officials now in the private sector, raised hackles at the CIA, where it was considered "a semi-independent intelligence-collection operation in a war zone," according to a U.S. official familiar with the agency's concerns. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that it was "not apparent who authorized" the operation but that the "potential for disaster" was obvious.

A second source close to the intelligence community said that "both the [CIA] and the Special Operations community . . . have been expressing grave concern for a long time. Why he was able to keep his job, much less continue this program, is a mystery."

Unease about Furlong rose to the highest levels of the intelligence agency, with several briefings provided to CIA Director Leon Panetta.

Although the military apparently terminated the operation late last year, Geoff Morrell, spokesman for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, said Monday night that the Pentagon was "in the process of trying to get to the bottom" of the allegations "and determine if any policy or legal guidelines were ignored." If so, he said, "the department will take immediate corrective action and quickly pursue accountability through appropriate channels."

The U.S. Strategic Command, the parent organization of the information operations center, confirmed that Furlong is a full-time civilian employee but did not respond to requests to clarify the nature of his job.

The allegations of a contractor intelligence operation first appeared Sunday night on the New York Times Web site, which said that the operation was designed to help track and kill suspected militants. It noted that it is illegal for the military to hire contractors to act as covert spies. Agreements with the government of Pakistan also prohibit the U.S. military from conducting undercover operations there.

The number of government agencies working in Afghanistan -- many of them involved in intelligence work -- and the expansion of vaguely defined "information operations" and "strategic communications" by the military have led to overlap and confusion. The situation has been compounded by the Obama administration's expanded mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

According to several government and civilian sources, Furlong's operation was funded under a $24.6 million contract by the Defense Department's Joint IED Defeat Organization, which was set up early in the Iraq war to combat insurgents' roadside bombs. His operation was part of a larger military information program, called Capstone.

In an August review of Afghanistan operations, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in that country, wrote that "CAPSTONE contracts . . . should be supported as these will significantly enhance . . . monitoring and assessment efforts."

Morrell called information operations "an essential weapon in modern warfare."

Among the private firms working with Furlong was International Media Ventures, a relatively new "strategic information" company formed by retired Special Operations officers. Military officials stationed in Afghanistan said that Furlong referred on a number of occasions to work he was doing with former CIA officer Duane Clarridge. Among a number of activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Clarridge was privately retained last year to negotiate with insurgents who had kidnapped New York Times reporter David Rohde. Rohde eventually escaped.

Staff writers Joby Warrick and Craig Whitlock and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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