(Photo: markk2 / Flickr)
New details of Blackwater participation in clandestine CIA raids detail the extent to which private security contractors were involved in covert government antiterror operations.
According to former employees and current and former American intelligence officials, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions, Blackwater security guards participated in clandestine raids to capture or kill suspected insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and in transportation of detainees on CIA flights.
The raids against suspects were said to occur almost nightly between 2004 and 2006, the height of the Iraqi insurgency. Several of the former Blackwater employees said the lines dividing the government-sanctioned agencies (the CIA and the military) and Blackwater began to blur.
This information highlights a more extensive relationship between the CIA and Blackwater, now re-named Xe Services, than government investigation had previously acknowledged.
This was confirmed recently by an article about Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, published in Vanity Fair. In it, Prince spoke about the extent of his involvement with the CIA, which ranged from putting together, funding and executing operations to bring personnel into "denied areas" to targeting specific people for assassination who were deemed enemies by the US government.
Though Prince alleged that he participated as a private citizen and used his personal funds to carry out operations, the Blackwater employees interviewed by The New York Times confirmed both their full knowledge of and participation in the raids.
Xe spokesman Mark Corallo, however, continued to deny this. "Blackwater USA was never under contract to participate in covert raids with CIA or Special Operations personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else."
Blackwater's initial connection with the CIA begin in the spring of 2002, when Prince offered to help guard an American government station in Afghanistan. Shortly after, he signed a contract for his employees, many of them former military personnel, to provide security for the area. Blackwater was also initially hired for security work in Iraq, and provided personnel accompaniment for CIA officers, meaning they were even present during offensive operations.
A former CIA official said that Blackwater's role became more comprehensive as the Bush administration's counter-terror efforts progressed. When the CIA banned its officers from leaving the Green Zone in Baghdad without security, they effectively allowed a Blackwater employee to be consistently armed and present.
"It became a very brotherly relationship," said one former top CIA officer. "There was a feeling that Blackwater eventually became an extension of the agency.
The program was kept secret for nearly eight years until it was revealed by CIA Director Leon Panetta during a closed door briefing to lawmakers. During this meeting, Panetta named both Prince and Blackwater as major players. "They were supposed to be the outer layer of the onion, out on the perimeter," said one former Blackwater official of the security guards. Instead, "they were the drivers and the gunslingers," a former intelligence official said.
According to current and former government officials, former Vice President Dick Cheney told CIA officers in 2002 that they did not need to inform Congress about the program because they were already legally authorized to kill al-Qaeda leaders.
Blackwater's history in Iraq and Afghanistan has been stormy. A shooting by Blackwater bodyguards in Baghdad in September 2009 resulted in the death of 17 civilians, and the Justice Department has since charged six people with voluntary manslaughter, among other offenses, calling the use of force both unjustified and unprovoked.
A contractor also shot and killed a man standing on a roadside who later turned out to be a father of six, and also killed a bodyguard who was assigned to protect Iraq's vice president. In both cases, the contractors were fired but not prosecuted.
Following these incidents, Iraqi officials have refused to give Blackwater an operating license. As a result of this, its revenue dropped 40 percent, and Prince says he is now paying more than $2 million a month in legal fees.
The company is also facing a grand jury investigation, bribery accusations, the voluntary-manslaughter trial of five ex-employees for Iraqis killed in September 2007 and the House Intelligence Committee is investigating the company's role in the CIA's assassination program.
American agencies have in the past outsourced interrogations, but many worry that contracting out the authority to kill brings a new set of problems.
George Little, a CIA spokesman, would not comment on Blackwater's ties to the agency. But he said the CIA employs contractors to "enhance the skills of our own work force, just as American law permits."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, "It is too easy to contract out work that you don't want to accept responsibility for."
P.W. Singer, an expert in contracting at the Brookings Institution, said the types of jobs that have been outsourced by the government have severely undermined the rules surrounding "inherently governmental" functions.
"We keep finding functions that have been outsourced that common sense, let alone US government policy, would argue should not have been handed over to a private company," he said. "And yet we do it again, and again, and again."
Blackwater, which received more than $1.5 billion in government contracts between 2001 and 2009, regularly offers its training area in North Carolina to CIA operatives and continues to help fly killer drones along the border between and Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Obama is said to have authorized more than three dozen of these hits.