The Pentagon's Stringers

Ex-CNN exec Eason Jordan and author Robert Pelton say their Afghan reporting project was hijacked by a rogue DoD official. But had their unorthodox operation already crossed a line?

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 9:10 AM EDT

Need entrée to Afghan warlords and powerbrokers? "Access to Taliban"? Personnel who can operate "very low profile" in hostile environments? Perhaps a strategic communications campaign to "shape" and "place...media and messages" in the "AfPak region"? If so, International Safety Networks, a division of Praedict LLC, could help.

The company is not your average defense contractor staffed by ex-spooks and former military brass. It’s the brainchild of Eason Jordan, the award-winning former head of CNN's news operation, and Robert Young Pelton, an author and self-described adventurer who prides himself on "getting to the heart of the story" in the world's most dangerous locales. But a recent blast of publicity tying them to a rogue military operation in Afghanistan and Pakistan could change the business prospects of their unusual amalgamation of war-zone reporting, private intelligence-gathering, and deal-brokering.

On Sunday the New York Times reported that a Defense Department official named Michael Furlong had run an "off-the-books spy operation" in Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to the Times, Furlong, an expert on information operations, relied on a network of contractors to gather intelligence on suspected insurgents—which was potentially used to target the militants for lethal operations. At one stage, Furlong's program involved a project Jordan and Pelton had pitched to military officials. They say their goal was to set up a journalistic-style enterprise devoted purely to gathering information that could help US officials and others better understand developments in the region. To that end, they created a web site called AfPax Insider, which debuted in 2008. But, they say, it became a victim of Pentagon spy games. "People think I’m a spy now," Pelton tells Mother Jones. "It’s absurd."

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But one of the companies established by Pelton and Jordan, International Safety Networks (ISN), offered to do more than just information gathering. It pitched services that merged reporting, intelligence, connection-peddling, and strategic communications. ISN’s web site boasts that it can "create sustainable solutions for clients who operate in high risk areas"—by providing "Ground Truth/Atmospherics/Street/Metrics," "Situational Awareness/Exclusive Sources," "First and exclusive access to Taliban/Hostile Media," "Tribal Liaison," and "Behind the scenes engagement" with "hostiles/locals/tribals/politicians/powerbrokers/fence-sitters…and more." As for clientele, the site indicates ISN has sought corporate and government customers, including military outfits.

Pelton, however, says this business hasn’t fully gotten off the ground—and now it may never do so, thanks to the Furlong affair. But he and Jordan initially garnered strong interest from the US military for AfPax Insider, a project modeled on a subscription-based online news outlet they had previously created to focus on Iraq. Dubbed IraqSlogger, the web site’s revenues came partly from subscriptions paid by government officials. According to Pelton, it never made much money, and last summer the site went dormant. But as attention shifted away from Iraq, the pair saw a new market for their brand of information-gathering. This time, they went hunting for a more reliable funding stream.

In July 2008 they pitched their idea to Gen. David McKiernan, then the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The plan, Pelton says, was "to have normal people in various parts of Afghanistan reporting on, say, the price of gas, what’s going on in their neighborhood, the explosions that were going off." He adds: "We were trying to set up a real-time feed of information disconnected from the government. We knew there was a demand for that. But with the death of traditional media, who the fuck’s going to pay for this? In Afghanistan, there was no media in the boonies. We were going to hire stringers and focus on tribal areas." The goal: a steady flow of "situational awareness." Yet Pelton and Jordan offered to provide more to the US military and other clients than just straight-up reporting posted on a public website. "If you want to know what the Taliban are doing here," Pelton explains, "let’s bring a guy over here from that region to talk to you."

Furlong was present in their meeting with McKiernan and, according to Pelton, "said he could fund us." Pelton and Jordan say they were supposed to be paid several million dollars in subscription fees for their project but ultimately only received two payments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Pelton says their operation did other assorted tasks for the US military. It investigated a bombing raid that hit a wedding party and "figured out who’s who" in Helmand province. "No sneaky stuff," he insists, saying, "we became the arms and legs for what they needed to know in Afghanistan." Last summer, according to Pelton, Furlong suggested that Jordan and Pelton start working with other contractors in a “blended project.” Pelton contends he told Furlong, "We do what we do and don’t want to work for the government." He says that as Furlong moved funds intended for AfPax to other parts of his operation—particularly the effort to track and kill militants—he and Jordan backed out and "torpedoed our own contract." (In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News, Furlong denied Pelton’s version of events. "I take stuff in open source and throw it in the intelligence pipeline," he said. "I don't take this information and go directly to a kill. It is not the spot and shoot operation that he is making it sound like.")

AfPax Insider has been inactive since last August. But did its relationship with the US military violate journalistic ethics? "When you pose as an independent journalist or as an independent news organization and you take money from the government without telling people, that discredits the profession," says Bob Dietz, the Committee to Protect Journalists' Asia program director and a former CNN staffer. Pelton, though, insists he and Jordan breached no ethical lines. He maintains they received no "direct funding" from the Pentagon and only accepted subscription fees, which also covered "premium" services. "The US military," Pelton says, "was never meant to be the singular client, nor did they shape the content or control our business." He adds, "If the CIA reads Time magazine, does it mean Time works for the CIA?" Still, according to a statement issued by Pelton and Jordan, AfPax Insider was able to launch because of the US military’s multimillion-dollar subscription guarantee.

One reporter who worries about blowback from the AfPax project—for very personal reasons—is Derek Henry Flood, a freelance journalist who's worked in Afghanistan. He says he was tapped by Pelton and Jordan to run AfPax’s newsgathering operations and recruit its Afghan stringers. But he notes he was not told about Pelton and Jordan's financial arrangement with the US military. He adds that he never heard of Furlong until he read about the DoD official’s alleged exploits in the Times. "I feel burned by the whole thing," he says. Now he wonders whether his involvement with a project that’s been associated with US military and intelligence operations has placed a target on his back. "If Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin Haqqani didn't know who I was before, they certainly will now," he says, referring to the notorious father-and-son Taliban commanders who have launched devastating attacks on US and coalition forces. (Pelton says he paid Flood "to write two or three articles as a freelancer.")

Jordan and Pelton portray AfPax as a well-intentioned effort that a rogue DoD official tried to hijack. But for several years, they have been selling a blend of journalism, intelligence, and influence. When IraqSlogger launched under Praedict, another company owned by the pair, it promised to deliver clients "information not currently available from traditional open source or even intelligence sources. Our network is a combination of personal relationships, reliable sources on the ground, experience in the region, insight into events, discreet and well-placed sources inside government, industry and a wide spectrum of political groups." They marketed a monthly subscription service that would combine "custom reports, content sales, and consulting" and promised it would cost "much less than the price of a single seasoned intelligence analyst." At the time, Jordan and Pelton said their operation would "stringently maintain our independence from political, special interest, and other sources."

ISN’s web site currently promotes the "unusual networks and access" of its principals, and cites their connections "to local, regional and national powerbrokers, warlords, military, law enforcement and tribals." It says ISN and Praedict have conducted "successful programs" in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Colombia, Myanmar, Liberia, Yemen, and other hot spots "in support" of a variety of corporate, nongovernmental, and US government clients, including the State Department, the US military’s Central Command, the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), and others. (A JIEDDO spokeswoman says it never contracted directly with Praedict or ISN.) For a time, ISN employed a retired Navy SEAL and former senior Blackwater executive, Mike Rush, as an adviser. His work for ISN, he says, largely consisted of managing a JIEDDO subcontract to compile land ownership information in Iraq.

Along with its services, ISN has offered to perform information operations for clients, touting its ability to "shape, produce, place and monitor media and messages" in the Afganistan-Pakistan region. According to a government database, the firm has been actively looking for government work in this realm. It has signed up as a possible vendor for an Air Force contract that would provide "foreign media analysis support" for "joint/combined operations planning related to intelligence, Information Operations (IO), Global Strike, and Strategic Communications."

Pelton says that ISN was an attempt to capitalize on his extensive experience covering conflicts, utilizing his and Jordan’s personal contacts in troubled areas. "I have a history of being in multiple war zones doing multiple things," he says. "What commercial value is there in that?" One goal, he says, was for him and Jordan to bring together opposing parties in conflict-ridden regions to work out deals—perhaps to resolve a kidnapping, curb pirating, or kick-start negotiations. Explaining ISN’s work, Pelton notes its main focus has been Somalia and anti-piracy efforts. And he confirms it has been seeking contracts with the US military, other governmental actors, humanitarian organizations, and corporations for non-journalistic endeavors. "I don’t know that journalism has ever solved the world's problems," he comments.

Flood says that when he was working for ISN, he knew little about its other projects and was even kept in the dark about the location of its offices. (Its official address is the Long Island office of an accounting firm.) But he recalls Pelton mentioning the company being involved in kidnapping rescue efforts. Pelton, he remarks, is "the international man of mystery. He never tells you the first thing." He adds, "I don’t know what the fallout of this is going to be."

As for ISN and Praedict, Pelton says these firms are now in limbo. "When the New York Times calls me a contractor, it’s time to hang up your spurs," he remarks. "You need someone who appreciates what we can do without confusing it with what the CIA does." Pelton mentions that he did have a business meeting scheduled in Somalia next week for an anti-piracy initiative. But it’s no longer happening. (Recent developments there—with US military officials backing a planned offensive against the insurgents holding the Somali capital of Mogadishu—have caused complications for this project.) But once the Furlong controversy dies down, will ISN and Praedict return to the front lines? "They are now only noble concepts," Pelton says with a laugh.

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