The other shoe has dropped. CIA Director Leon Panetta, it turns out, ran up to up to Capitol Hill this June not simply to confess the CIA had a secret assassination program it never implemented but rather to confess it had sub-contracted the job out. As first reported by the New York Times on its website Wednesday evening, the CIA hired Blackwater to help with a secret program to assassinate top Al Qaeda leaders. Although no one was ultimately assassinated before the program was ultimately shelved and the Times reports that it’s not clear that Blackwater was engaged to do anything more than assist with planning, training and surveillance Panetta must have been horrified the CIA turned to mercenaries to play a part in its dirty work. It’s one thing, albeit often misguided, for the agency to outsource certain tasks to contractors. It’s quite another to involve a company like Blackwater in even just the planning and training of targeted killings, akin to the CIA going to the Mafia to draw up a plan to kill Castro.
I suspect that if the agreements are ever really looked into rather than a formal contract, the CIA reportedly brokered individual deals with top company brass we will find out the Blackwater’s assassination work was more about bilking the U.S. taxpayer than it was killing bin Laden or other al Qaeda leaders. More than a few senior CIA officers retired from the CIA and went to work at Blackwater, the controversial private security shop now known as Xe Services. Not only did they presumably take along their CIA Rolodexes with them out the door, but many probably didn’t choose to leave until they had a lucrative new contract lined up. But more to the point Blackwater stood no better chance of placing operatives in Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the al Qaeda leadership was hiding in 2004, than did the CIA or the U.S. military.
This leads to the question of what the CIA ever saw in Blackwater that the public hasn’t. Even before it was expelled from Iraq after a Blackwater security detail allegedly shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007, the contractor for unclear reasons took over security duties CIA staff employees used to carry out. In May of this year in Kabul four Blackwater contractors reportedly shot and killed two unarmed Afghans; Blackwater whisked the four out of the country before the Afghans could investigate. The State Dept. has also relied heavily on Blackwater in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the years.
And there may even be a darker side to Blackwater. This August one former anonymous Blackwater employee filed a sworn statement in federal court in Virginia claiming that Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince was involved in the murder of at least one informant reporting to federal authorities on his company. The allegation, first reported by The Nation magazine, was part of a civil suit filed by several Iraqis for the company’s alleged abuses in the country. Blackwater has denied the claims, calling them “anonymous unsubstantiated and offensive assertions.”
Still, the CIA has maintained its various Blackwater contracts, which run from protecting CIA operatives in the field to loading Hellfire missiles on Predator drones. None of this is to mention that as soon as CIA money lands in Blackwater’s account it is beyond accounting, as good as gone.
If this Administration ever hopes to get a handle on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any of the other countries around the world where the ‘war on terrorism’ has been fought it’s going to have to figure out what happened to the billions and billions spent on contracts. So far the Obama White House has been happy to work with the Bush Administration contracting mess. In Afghanistan today, the company that supervises Blackwater is a British security called Aegis, which is headed by a notorious British mercenary. Afghans are a people that do not take well to mercenaries.
Even more troubling, I think we will find out that in the unraveling of the Bush years, Blackwater is not the worst of the contractors, some of which did reportedly end up carrying out their assigned hits.
Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer assigned to the Middle East, is TIME.com’s intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently,
The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower
Read a brief history of secret CIA missions.
Read “CIA’s Secret Program: Why Wasn’t Panetta Told”