Blackwater's Black Op

| Thu Aug. 20, 2009 11:53 AM EDT

Is that what those silencers were for? The big news today is that the CIA outsourced a program to assassinate Al Qaeda operatives—the program Leon Panetta was in such a hurry to brief the congressional intel committees on—to Blackwater. The program was never fully operational, but when it was brought to the attention of Panetta in June, CIA officials were proposing to take this operation to the next level and begin training assassination teams, the Washington Post reported in July. Panetta promptly shut the program down. According the New York Times' Mark Mazzetti, who broke the story of Blackwater's involvement, the private security company's role in the program "was a major reason" that Panetta "became alarmed" and proceeded directly to the Hill to come clean.

At this point, Blackwater's precise role in the abandoned assassination program is a bit hazy—and it's likely to remain that way since the operation never actually got off the ground. Mazzetti reports that the company "helped the spy agency with planning, training and surveillance" and says "it is unclear whether the C.I.A. had planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill Qaeda operatives." The Post, which advanced the story a bit further today, reports that Blackwater was in fact "given operational responsibility for targeting terrorist commanders and was awarded millions of dollars for training and weaponry."

The enormous oversight and accountability implications of outsourcing this type of covert op to the private sector are evident, so why would CIA officials even entertain this notion in the first place? The answer is buried in the Post story: apparently it had everything to do with Blackwater's revolving door relationship with the CIA (among other government agencies).

The program was initially managed by the CIA's counterterrorism center, but its functions were partly transferred to Blackwater when key officials from the center retired from the CIA and went to work for the private contractor.

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Who are these key officials? I'll hazard a guess that one of them is probably Cofer Black, the CIA veteran who ran the agency's Counterterrorism Center (CTC) from 1999 to 2002 and became Blackwater's vice chairman in 2005. Another may be Enrique "Ric" Prado, another agency veteran who now works for Prince. Prado served under Black as the CTC's chief of operations and spent a decade with the CIA's paramilitary branch—the division that would presumably have a role in black ops like those Panetta shut down. And of course there's Robert Richer, who retired in 2005 as the number two man in the CIA's operations directorate and promptly joined Blackwater as a vice president. In 2007, Richer and Black launched Total Intelligence Solutions, the for-hire espionage arm of Prince's private security empire, with Prado serving as the company's chief operating officer. (Richer has since left the firm.)

That the CIA felt it needed to approach Erik Prince to oversee such a sensitive program (or part of it, at least), because he now employs the men who were running it, speaks to the degree to which Blackwater's enigmatic founder has truly built up a military and intelligence capacity rivaling that of the US government. After the departure of members of the CTC's management, did the agency really lack experienced personnel to handle this program in house? And, if the CIA is willing to entrust management of targeted killings to Blackwater, what other shadowy jobs has the company taken on for the agency?

Those are some of the mysteries surrounding Blackwater's covert work for the CIA. Another is the precise nature of the arrangement the agency had with Blackwater in this case. According to the Times, the company had no contract associated with this program. Rather, the CIA "had individual agreements with top company officials, including the founder, Erik D. Prince." What exactly does that mean—and through which channels was Blackwater being paid? (Certainly, when it comes to intelligence operations, there are creative ways of funneling money to contractors. See Sharon Weinberger's recent story on the CIA's post-9/11 effort to obtain Russian helicopters for use in Afghanistan, which involved a $5 million credit card transaction filtered through an El Paso bar.)

The House intelligence committee has launched an investigation into the CIA's nascent assassination program, though the inquiry is reportedly focusing largely on whether the agency may have broken the law by keeping Congress in the dark (and what role Dick Cheney may have played in making sure lawmakers weren't briefed). If Blackwater's role hasn't already figured into this inquiry—because it sounds like Panetta made this aspect clear when he briefed intel committee members—it seems quite possible that it will now.

One of the intel committee members pushing for answers on the program is Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), an outspoken Blackwater critic who recently called on the State Department to cut its ties with the firm. "The behavior and actions of both the company's leadership and a number of individuals employed by the company have harmed our mission in Iraq and Afghanistan and endangered the lives and welfare of our troops and diplomatic personnel serving overseas," she said.

Schakoswky's remarks came shortly after Blackwater, now known as Xe, ended up in the middle of yet another controversy. In this case, Prince and his company were accused by two anonymous former employees of orchestrating another type of assassination program—this one targeting not terrorists but potential witnesses in an ongoing criminal investigation by federal authorities. (Blackwater has called the allegations "unsubstantiated and offensive.")

Blackwater has yet to comment on today's revelations. I've contacted Xe spokeswoman Stacy DeLuke for a response and will update the post when I hear back.

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