- New York Times -
Private security guards from Blackwater Worldwide participated in some of the C.I.A.’s most sensitive activities — clandestine raids with agency officers against people suspected of being insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and the transporting of detainees, according to former company employees and intelligence officials.
The raids against suspects occurred on an almost nightly basis during the height of the Iraqi insurgency from 2004 to 2006, with Blackwater personnel playing central roles in what company insiders called “snatch and grab” operations, the former employees and current and former intelligence officers said.
Several former Blackwater guards said that their involvement in the operations became so routine that the lines supposedly dividing the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and Blackwater became blurred. Instead of simply providing security for C.I.A. officers, they say, Blackwater personnel at times became partners in missions to capture or kill militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, a practice that raises questions about the use of guns for hire on the battlefield.
Separately, former Blackwater employees said they helped provide security on some C.I.A. flights transporting detainees in the years after the 2001 terror attacks in the United States.
The secret missions illuminate a far deeper relationship between the spy agency and the private security company than government officials had acknowledged. Blackwater’s partnership with the C.I.A. has been enormously profitable for the North Carolina-based company, and became even closer after several top agency officials joined Blackwater.
“It became a very brotherly relationship,” said one former top C.I.A. officer. “There was a feeling that Blackwater eventually became an extension of the agency.”
George Little, a C.I.A. spokesman, would not comment on Blackwater’s ties to the agency. But he said the C.I.A. employs contractors to “enhance the skills of our own work force, just as American law permits.”
“Contractors give you flexibility in shaping and managing your talent mix — especially in the short term — but the accountability’s still yours,” he said.
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Blackwater, said Thursday that it was never under contract to participate in clandestine raids with the C.I.A. or with Special Operations personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else.
Blackwater’s role in the secret operations raises concerns about the extent to which private security companies, hired for defensive guard duty, have joined in offensive military and intelligence operations.
Representative Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who is chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, said in an interview that “the use of contractors in intelligence and paramilitary operations is a scandal waiting to be examined.” While he declined to comment on specific operations, Mr. Holt said that the use of contractors in such operations “got way out of hand.” He added, “It’s been very troubling to a lot of people.”
Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, has come under intense criticism for what Iraqis have described as reckless conduct by its security guards, and the company lost its lucrative State Department contract to provide diplomatic security for the United States Embassy in Baghdad earlier this year after a 2007 shooting that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.
Blackwater’s ties to the C.I.A. have emerged in recent months, beginning with disclosures in The New York Times that the agency had hired the company as part of a program to assassinate leaders of Al Qaeda and to assist in the C.I.A.’s Predator drone program in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, recently initiated an internal review examining all Blackwater contracts with the agency to ensure that the company was performing no missions that were “operational in nature,” according to one government official.
Five former Blackwater employees and four current and former American intelligence officials interviewed for this article would speak only on condition of anonymity because Blackwater’s activities for the agency were secret and former employees feared repercussions from the company. The Blackwater employees said they participated in the raids or had direct knowledge of them.
Along with the former officials, they provided few details about the targets of the raids in Iraq and Afghanistan, although they said that many of the Iraq raids were directed against members of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. To corroborate the claims of the company’s involvement, a former Blackwater security guard provided photographs to The Times that he said he took during the raids. They showed detainees and armed men whom he and a former company official identified as Blackwater employees. The former intelligence officials said that Blackwater’s work with the C.I.A. in Iraq and Afghanistan had grown out of its early contracts with the spy agency to provide security for the C.I.A. stations in both countries.
In the spring of 2002, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, offered to help the spy agency guard its makeshift Afghan station in the Ariana Hotel in Kabul. Not long after Mr. Prince signed the security contract with Alvin B. Krongard, then the C.I.A.’s third-ranking official, dozens of Blackwater personnel — many of them former members of units of the Navy Seals or Army Delta Force — were sent to provide perimeter security for the C.I.A. station.
But the company’s role soon changed as Blackwater operatives began accompanying C.I.A. case officers on missions, according to former employees and intelligence officials.