Dan is Mother Jones' deputy DC bureau chief. He is the New York Times best-selling author of Sons of Wichita(Grand Central Publishing), a biography of the Koch brothers that is now out in paperback. Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.
The CIA probably doesn't want you to know this, but unmasking its covert operatives isn't as hard as you'd think. Just ask John Sifton. During a six-year stint at Human Rights Watch, the attorney and investigator was hot on the trail of the CIA and some of its most sensitive Bush-era counterterrorism programs, including extraordinary rendition, secret Eastern European detention sites, and the legally dubious and brutal methods used to extract information from detainees. "Even deep-cover CIA officers are real people, with mortgages and credit reports," Sifton once told CQ Politics. For researchers with a trained eye for the hallmarks of a CIA alias, there are obvious giveaways: "A brand new Social Security number, a single P.O. box in Reston, Virginia. You disregard those and focus on the real persons who lie behind, and you can find them."
Sifton's talent for uncovering the CIA's secrets may have served him well—but now, it also has set off a firestorm in the human rights community, prompted a backlash from congressional Republicans, and helped trigger a federal investigation headed by none other than Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame affair. The story begins in 2008, when military prosecutors sought the death penalty in military commission trials of six suspected 9/11 conspirators being held at Guantanamo Bay, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the attacks. The defense had few resources and little experience trying capital cases. Into the breach stepped the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which created the John Adams Project—an effort to supply civilian lawyers to assist in the defense of some of the least sympathetic clients in the world. Fittingly, the group was named after the founding father who had represented British soldiers after the Boston Massacre.
Jeff Stein reports this morning that the company formerly known as Blackwater has been awarded a CIA contract worth about $100 million to provide security in "multiple regions." This comes days after the company landed a $120 million State Department contract for work in Afghanistan. Stein's piece includes an interesting quote from an official who defends the government's decision to provide Blackwater 2.0 with more work, given the litany of abuses and scandals in the firm's recent past:
"Blackwater has undergone some serious changes," maintained a U.S. official who is familiar with the deal and spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss it freely.
"They’ve had to if they want to survive. They’ve had to prove to the government that they’re a responsible outfit. Having satisfied every legal requirement, they have the right to compete for contracts. They have people who do good work, at times in some very dangerous places. Nobody should forget that, either."
If Blackwater (which is currently up for sale) only now has to prove it's a responsible, legally compliant company, you have to wonder what type of standard government contracting officers were applying previously, as they handed the firm (and its affiliates) contract after contract despite serious questions about its conduct. The offical Stein quotes is echoing the line Blackwater's new management team has been pushing
—that the company has been reformed, chastened by the mistakes of its past. It may even be true. Otherwise it's a shrewd, if predictable, PR campaign.
In February, when he was called before a Senate committee to answer for the misconduct of employees of a Blackwater-created shell company named Paravant, Fred Roitz, a senior VP at Xe (as the company is now known), insisted [PDF] the company had truly been transformed into a model corporate citizen: "These changes in personnel, attitude, focus, policy and practice, ownership, and governance represent a break from the past. The new Xe Services remains committed to our nation’s critical missions. We are equally committed, however, to a culture of compliance that in all circumstances reflects a responsible US government contractor." Following the hearing, I approached Roitz to pose a couple questions about his testimony and Xe's new corporate culture. I'd barely introduced myself when he refused to speak with me, brushing past trailed by an entourage of lawyers and crisis management specialists. It sure seemed like the old Blackwater to me.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been summoned to the White House for a presidential spanking over some jaw-dropping remarks he and his aides made to Rolling Stone, which profiles the general in an issue that hits newsstands on Friday. The article, fittingly titled The Runaway General, features highly critical comments about senior Obama administration officials including National Security Advisor James Jones (a "clown," an unnamed aide remarks), Vice President Joe Biden ("Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?" another anonymous aide quips), and the president himself.
The blogs are ablaze with speculation about whether McChrystal will keep his job over this flap, which is really no small manner. McChrystal has effectively undermined the president's authority—and at the worst time possible too, since things are really not going terribly well in Afghanistan presently. For what it's worth, McChrystal says he's sorry for shooting his mouth off:
I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and it should have never happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.
Heads are already starting to roll over the debacle. The first to go? McChrystal's civilian press aide, Duncan Boothby, who arranged access to the general and his inner circle. Expect more fallout in the days to come.
According to the Wall Street Journal, military commanders in Afghanistan have arrived at the conclusion that allowing billions of dollars to flow to local and international contractors with the scantest of oversight is kind of a big problem. They "now believe," the Journalreports, that "the massive infusions of cash are helping engender a culture of corruption that has undermined Afghan support for the government of President Hamid Karzai and the NATO forces that back it." You think?
The US-led coalition is in the process of putting together a contract corruption-fighting unit dubbed Task Force 2010. It's a catchy enough name. But I might have gone with something different. "2010" gets you wondering why there's no Task Force 2009, or 2008, or 2007...really, why 9 years have passed without a similar unit being stood up. The Journal reports:
Up until now, much of the limited scrutiny that contractors have endured has focused on private security firms, some of which have allegedly paid off the Taliban to avoid attacks.
Officers directly involved with the new task force stressed that it plans to look beyond security firms and examine the full array of contracts, which range from delivering fuel and food to NATO forces to using coalition money to build health clinics and schools in remote villages.
Of particular concern is the frequent use of multiple sub-contracts on many contracts. U.S. officials already investigating corruption in Afghanistan say they have found evidence of companies, in particular construction firms, using a string of sub-contractors to shift cash to shell companies. The money then disappears, usually into foreign bank accounts.
A number of the primary contractors have ties to top Afghan officials or people with powerful political connections, officials say.
Task Force 2010 will look "at who are not only the subcontractors, but the subcontractors to the subcontractors—literally, where is the money going, and is it all above-board?" said Gen. David Petraeus, who commands U.S. Forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, Tuesday at a Congressional hearing on the war in Afghanistan.
A Western official knowledgeable about Afghanistan's private security scene pointed me to this letter to the editor from the Afghan ambassador to the US, Said Jawad, that ran in the New York Times earlier this week. Jawad is responding to a recent Dexter Filkins piece about Matiullah Khan, a provincial powerbroker in Oruzgan. Khan, once a highway patrol commander, heads a paramilitary force said to be 2,000 men strong, which protects NATO convoys on a particularly dangerous stretch of road between Tirin Kowt and Kandahar. His men also take part in operations with US Special Forces soldiers. It's very lucrative work. He brings in an estimated $2.5 million per month.
The gist of Filkins' story—which is well worth reading in its entirety—is that while Matiullah's services may be helpful in the short-term, empowering him and other local strongmen (there are many) come at the cost of NATO's long-term objectives. For instance, as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) pointed out this week, building up a capable national army and police force is made even more difficult by the fact that local security operations, which pay better, are recruiting directly from the ranks of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. There's also the fact that Matiullah may be engaging in criminal activity on the side, conniving "with both drug smugglers and Taliban insurgents"—reports of which military commanders apparently ignore in order to justify relying on his services.
The questions Filkins raises in his story are legitimate and troubling, but his characterization of Matiullah rankled the Afghan ambassador. Jawad writes that the story "left the impression that an effective founder of a private security firm is somehow a 'semiofficial warlord,' undermining government institutions in Oruzgan Province."
The Taliban regularly attack supply caravans. NATO cannot secure the safety of its own transports, and because the Afghan Army is deployed in the battle with the Taliban, adequate police officers cannot protect remote highways. Yet risk-taking entrepreneurs like Matiullah Kahn have filled this security vacuum.
First, I'd say Jawad's impression was precisely the one that Filkins was trying to leave. Second, I actually think Filkins was being somewhat charitable when he referred to Matiullah as a "semi-official warlord." If there's even such thing as an "official" warlord, Matiullah is a member of the club. Also, Matiullah doesn't run a "firm" per se. It's basically a militia, which goes by the name Kandak Amniante Oruzgan (or Highway Police Oruzgan). What Jawad conspicously fails to mention is that Matiullah's operation is considered illegal by the government he represents, which requires security outfits, local and international alike, to be licensed through the Ministry of Interior.
In the past, the ministry has even offered Matiullah a license and a government contract, according to Hanif Atmar, who served as Afghanistan's Interior minister until earlier this month, when he was forced to resign by Afghan president Hamid Karzai. But Matiullah has refused to come under government control—which doesn't bode well for any potential efforts in the future to integrate his militia into the Afghan security forces, let alone disband his private army. (And let's not forget that in November Karzai vowed to phase out all private security operations within two years. Good luck.) "Parallel structures of government create problems for the rule of law," Atmar told the Times.
Creating a stable society and a strong central government are, above all else, the Afghan president's main objectives. So why would Karzai's man in Washington go out of his way to defend a warlord—or entrepreneur, or whatever you want to call him—who is confounding these goals?