Before the war in Iraq began, the CIA recruited and trained an Iraqi paramilitary group, code-named the Scorpions, to foment rebellion, conduct sabotage, and help CIA paramilitaries who entered Baghdad and other cities target buildings and individuals, according to three current and former intelligence officials with knowledge of the unit.
The CIA spent millions of dollars on the Scorpions, whose existence has not been previously disclosed, even giving them former Soviet Hind helicopters. But most of the unit's prewar missions -- spray-painting graffiti on walls; cutting electricity; "sowing confusion," as one said -- were delayed or canceled because of poor training or planning, said officials briefed on the unit. The speed of the invasion negated the need for most of their missions, others said.
After Baghdad fell, the CIA used the Scorpions to try to infiltrate the insurgency, to help out in interrogations, and, from time to time, to do "the dirty work," as one intelligence official put it.
In one case, members of the unit, wearing masks and carrying clubs and pipes, beat up an Iraqi general in the presence of CIA and military personnel, according to investigative documents reviewed by The Washington Post and according to several defense and intelligence officials.
Post inquiries about the case prompted the CIA to brief the House and Senate intelligence committees on the unit, said several members of Congress and two defense officials.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, asked if he was satisfied with the information he received on the unit, said, "Yes -- if it existed." But he added: "We're not spending a lot of time going back and dissecting tactical programs."
CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Millerwise declined to comment on the unit. Defense Department spokesmen referred comments on the unit to the CIA. All former and current government officials interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the classified nature of the Scorpions.
Authorized by a presidential finding signed by President Bush in February or March 2002, the Scorpions were part of a policy of "regime change" in Iraq. The covert members, many of whom were exiles recruited by the Kurds, were trained in target identification, explosives and small arms at two secret bases in Jordan, according to one U.S. government official.
They were sent surreptitiously into Iraq before the war and were in cities such as Baghdad, Fallujah and Qaim to give the impression that a rebellion was underway and to conduct light sabotage, according to the two defense sources and the three former and current intelligence officials.
"They painted X's [for targeting] on buildings and things like that," said one former intelligence officer.
After the initial combat phase of the war, the CIA used the paramilitary units as translators and to fetch supplies and retrieve informants in an increasingly dangerous Iraq where CIA officers largely stayed within the protected Green Zone, according to the officials.
CIA control over the unit became weaker as chaos grew in Iraq. "Even though they were set up by us, they weren't well supervised," said an intelligence official.
"At some point, and it's not really clear how this happened, they started being used in interrogations . . . because they spoke the local dialect" and were caught roughing up detainees, Curtis E. Ryan, an Army investigator, told a military court in Colorado where four soldiers are charged in connection with the death of Maj. Gen. Abed Hamed Mowhoush in 2003.
Many of the paramilitaries did not speak English. When they entered Iraq after the invasion, because they wore civilian clothes and traveled in civilian vehicles, the Scorpion teams were often mistaken for insurgents. On a couple of occasions, U.S. soldiers unknowingly tracked the teams as insurgents and focused on their official safe houses as possible targets until they were discovered to be working with U.S. officials.