Thursday, August 20, 2009
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 20 August 2009 19.18 BST
The CIA enlisted the notorious security firm Blackwater in a secret programme to hunt and kill al-Qaida leaders, US intelligence sources confirmed today. Blackwater staff, many of whom are former US special forces and CIA members, were recruited in 2004 as part of the programme, estimated to have costs millions of dollars.
However, the New York Times, which broke the story, said it was unclear whether Blackwater had been engaged to carry out assassinations or simply to help with intelligence-gathering, planning and training.
No raid to capture or kill al-Qaida leaders was ever carried out and the programme was closed down this year. But the employment of Blackwater raised new questions about the legality of the CIA's behaviour during the Bush administration and about the agency's widespread use of outside contractors. There is also a question about whether the programme was deliberately kept hidden from Congress.
The CIA today refused to discuss the involvement of Blackwater, but did not deny it either. George Little, a CIA spokesman, acknowledged that there had been a counter-terrorism effort and it amounted to "more than a PowerPoint presentation".
General Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA from 2006 to this year, today defended the use of outside contractors, saying the agency used "whoever was best suited for the job". Speaking at a press conference in Washington, he denied that contractors had been used so the CIA could avoid blame. "We do not go outside the agency in order to deflect responsibility," he said. "Period."
Without going into the specifics of Blackwater's involvement, Hayden played down the significance of the programme, saying that if he had regarded it as important, he would have briefed Congress. He insisted he had never been asked by the former vice-president, Dick Cheney, to withhold information from Congress.
Hayden was adamant that the CIA did not carry out assassinations but, when asked if killing al-Qaida leaders amounted to assassination, he said: "No. That is killing in self-defence."
The CIA has been banned from carrying out assassinations since 1976, after congressional hearings into targeted killings in Vietnam and Latin America, including 26 attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Tim Shorrock, author of Spies For Hire: The Secret World Of Intelligence Outsourcing, expressed concern that private contractors could have been used by the CIA as a way to evade responsibility. "There is no accountability for contractors. We have seen it time and again with Blackwater," he said.
He added that Congress had been trying for years to get the CIA to release the names of the private contractors it uses. His estimate is that the CIA outsources 70% of its work. The agency claims that more than 90% of its core activities is carried out by permanent staff, with contractors being engaged mainly in support and logistical work.
Blackwater, which first started working for the CIA in various roles a few days after the September 11 attacks, was banned from Iraq after a 2007 massacre of civilians involving its staff. It has since changed its name to Xe Services.
The company could not be contacted today for comment.
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