Defense official says Afghan program was authorized

Michael Furlong has denied misusing U.S. contract funds.
Michael Furlong has denied misusing U.S. contract funds. (Associated Press)
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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

Michael D. Furlong, the senior Defense Department employee under investigation for allegedly running an unauthorized intelligence-gathering operation in Afghanistan, says his now-suspended program was fully authorized by top U.S. military commanders.

According to Furlong, the program, which began in late 2008, was requested by Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, the former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and approved by the U.S. Central Command.

In an interview with the San Antonio Express News published Thursday, he said McKiernan asked him to provide information "that would enhance our . . . understanding of the environment" in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zones. He denied misusing any U.S. contract funds.

The program was shut down and an investigation begun by the Defense Department's inspector general late last year after complaints by the CIA and a finding by senior officials under the new Afghanistan commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, that Furlong had stepped outside the boundaries of his contract and the law and "didn't want to operate within the constraints of how we do business," according to a U.S. military official familiar with the situation who was not authorized to discuss it on the record.

Most of the contractors hired by Furlong for the $24.8 million program -- one of the military's many "information operations" programs in the region -- were, like Furlong, Special Operations retirees. Revelations about the program have exposed what the official called a months-long "food fight" between the contractors and some segments of the military on one side and the CIA and military intelligence and Special Operations forces on the other, over the dividing line between intelligence and "information."

A spokesman for Furlong's employer, the Nebraska-based U.S. Strategic Command, or Stratcom, said Thursday, "We will not make Mr. Furlong available for an interview in his official capacity." Attempts to reach him at his duty post, Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where he told the San Antonio paper that he had been locked out of his office, were unsuccessful.

Furlong's interview with the paper marked his first public comment since the Defense Department investigation became public this week. Pentagon spokesman Bryan G. Whitman declined to discuss the investigation, saying, "We are still in the process of gathering the facts surrounding this to determine if there was any inappropriate conduct."

The specifics of what Furlong is alleged to have done remain unclear. Although news accounts have portrayed his program as contributing to efforts to target and kill insurgent leaders, several military officials said it never got that far. "Never did he feed information that resulted in any sort of kinetic action," the official said.

On Wednesday, McChrystal said he was unfamiliar with the details of the case, adding, "I certainly would never condone inappropriate activities under a contract."

A Reagan-era executive order, designed primarily to enhance the powers of U.S. intelligence agencies, prohibits contractors from being used for intelligence-gathering.

As described by the military official, Furlong's activities were allowed to get out of hand because of his high civilian rank -- he is a DISL, or Defense Intelligence Senior Level, equivalent to a general or admiral -- which inhibited more junior officers from challenging him, and because of limited oversight of such activities in the war theater.

"Who was in charge of him? That's the $1,000 question," the official said. "He had a reputation for saying 'Oh, yeah, McKiernan told me he wants this. I talked to [Adm. Mike] Mullen, and he's all over this' " -- a reference to the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.

In the San Antonio interview, Furlong said he was called to Afghanistan shortly after about 200 Taliban fighters ambushed a U.S. military outpost in Wanat, in eastern Afghanistan, in July 2008, and caused a high number of American casualties. McKiernan, he said, was "fit to be tied" by the surprise attack and asked for help in providing "ground truth" about insurgent activities.

The military official, however, provided a somewhat different version of the genesis of Furlong's operation, saying that Furlong, as an employee of Stratcom, offered to "fill an information-operations need" that was growing in Afghanistan as Taliban attacks increased in 2008 and U.S. attention and resources were shifting there from Iraq. Information operations include "putting out information" to influence the environment and the enemy, as opposed to pulling in information as part of intelligence gathering.

Furlong prepared a "statement of work" that was vetted and approved by McKiernan's command, Centcom, the Defense Department and the CIA, the official said. "Everybody looked at it and said this needs to be very, very clear . . . to focus on information operations only, not intelligence gathering."

Furlong and the military searched for funding for the program, ending up at the Joint IED Defeat Organization, which researches roadside bombs for the military. "It didn't have anything to do with JIEDDO," the official said, but that organization had contract money available. The approved contract, he said, was "very carefully crafted to make sure it was going to be done legally." The funding was approved in spring 2009.

When Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, McChrystal's communications director, began last fall to examine some of the work done under the contract, the official said, he determined it had crossed the line into intelligence collection, a conclusion that was supported by JIEDDO officials on a visit to Afghanistan last year.

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