Blackwater arming US drones for CIA: NYT
Friday, 21 Aug, 2009
According to a New York Times report, the Blackwater private security firm (now known as Xe) has taken up a role in America’s most important and contentious counterterrorism program: the use of unmanned drones to kill al-Qaeda leaders.
These operations are being executed from hidden basis inside Pakistan and Afghanistan where Blackwater’s contractors gather and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely operated Predator aircraft, the NYT quotes company and government officials as saying.
Previously this was done by CIA employees. Now, Blackwater employees also provide security at these bases, the officials said.
Blackwater’s role in the program shows the extent to which the CIA now depends on independent, private contractors to carry out some of the agency’s most crucial assignments.
A CIA spokesman declined comment.
On Thursday, the NYT reported that the CIA has hired Blackwater in 2004 as part of a secret program to local and assassinate top al-Qaeda leaders.
Later on Thursday, current and former government officials provided new information regarding Blackwater’s links with the assassination program which began in 2004. Soon after, Porter Goss took over the CIA.
The officials however said the CIA did not dispatch Blackwater operatives with a ‘license to kill’. Instead, the CIA ordered the contractors to start collecting information on the leaders’ whereabouts, carry out surveillance and train for missions that may be likely.
‘The actual pulling of a trigger in some ways is the easiest part, and the part that requires the least expertise,’ said one government official familiar with the cancelled CIA program. ‘It’s everything that leads up to it that’s the meat of the issue.’
Any such measure of capturing or killing militants was to be approved by the CIA director and presented to the White House before being carried out, officials told the New York Times.
The program was however cancelled by the agency’s current director Leon Panetta who had also informed the Congress of the program’s existence in a meeting in June.
The details of the business between CIA and Blackwater have largely been hidden, but its contract with the State Department to provide security to US officials in Iraq has been intensely scrutinised.
Blackwater lost its job in Iraq this year after five of its employees were involved in shootings in 2007 that left more than a dozen Iraqis dead. However, Blackwater still has other, less prominent State Department work.
Five former Blackwater guards have already been indicted on charges regarding the 2007 Iraq shootings.
A Blackwater (Xe) spokeswoman declined to comment over the role of the company with regard to these cases.
The company’s intelligence work is carried out by Blackwater Select, a special division of Blackwater.
Blackwater’s first principal contract with the CIA was signed in 2002. It entailed providing security for the agency’s Kabul station.
Blackwater operatives assigned to the Predator bases are trained at the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. They are taught how to load Hellfire missiles and laser-guided smart bombs on the drones, current and former employees say.
The agency has for many years operated Predator drones out of a remote base in Shamsi, Pakistan. However, a second site at an air base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan has been secretly added, company and US government officials said.
The existence of the Predator base in Jalalabad has not previously been reported, the New York Times said.
Meanwhile, now the CIA conducts most of its Predator drone strikes on targets in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region from the Jalalabad base, with drones landing or taking off almost hourly. The base in Pakistan is still in use.
Officials say the US decided to open the Afghanistan operation partly because of the possibility that the Pakistani government, facing growing anti-US sentiment at home, might force the CIA to close the one in Pakistan.
Blackwater is not involved in selecting targets or actual strikes, the NYT says. Targets are selected by the CIA. However, only a handful of the agency’s operatives actually work at the Predator bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Blackwater’s current and former employees say the company’s direct role in these operations has occasionally led to disputes with the agency. When a drone misses a target, CIA operatives accuse Blackwater of poor bomb assembly, they say. In one instance in 2008 a 500-pound bomb dropped off a drone before hitting the target. That lead to a frantic search for the unexploded bomb in the Pak-Afghan border region. The bomb was eventually found about 100 yards from the actual target.
The role of contractors in intelligence operations expanded after September 11 as intelligence agencies had to fill gaps created by reduced work forces during the 1990s.
At this point, more than a quarter of the intelligence community’s work force constitutes of contractors who carry out tasks of intelligence gathering and analysis, and until recently, terrorist suspects’ interrogation.
‘There are skills we don’t have in government that we may have an immediate requirement for,’ Michael Hayden, who ran the CIA from 2006 until early this year, said.
Hayden, who succeeded Goss at the agency, recognised that the CIA program continued under his watch. He said the program was never ‘prominent’, which was one reason he did not notify Congress. He said it did not engage private contractors by the time he came in.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who presides over the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the agency should have notified Congress in any event.
‘Every single intelligence operation and covert action must be briefed to the Congress,’ she said. ‘If they are not, that is a violation of the law.’