CIA ‘put out contracts on al-Qa’ida chiefs’

Author: By David Usborne, US Editor

Executives from the firm helped the spy agency with planning, training and
surveillance as a part of a multimillion-dollar programme, The New York
Times said, citing current and former government officials.

Whether it was ever intended for Blackwater operatives to be deployed actually
to carry out the killings has not been established. But as one official told
the newspaper: ?It?s wrong to think this counter-terrorism programme was
confined to briefing slides or doodles on a cafeteria napkin. It went well
beyond that.?

Even before yesterday?s revelation, the covert plan was a deeply sensitive
topic on Capitol Hill. Allegations surfaced earlier this summer that the
then vice-president, Dick Cheney, had ordered the CIA to keep the
programme?s existence a secret from Congress.

It now seems that Leon Panetta, the current director of the CIA, decided in
June not only to formally end the covert programme but also belatedly to
brief members of Congress, precisely because of the manner in which
Blackwater had been involved.

While the CIA did not address the media reports last night, a spokesman, Paul
Gimigliano, called the decision by Mr Panetta to end the programme ?clear
and straightforward?. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who leads the Senate
Intelligence Committee, was also unable to offer any further details but
noted that it ?is too easy to contract out work that you don?t want to
accept responsibility for?.

Much is still not known about the details of the operation or indeed exactly
how far it was taken. However, sources told The Washington Post that
Blackwater was given ?operational responsibility? for it. There seems little
question that millions of dollars were paid to the company for training,
surveillance and planning for the missions, although there is no suggestion
that anyone was actually assassinated under the programme.

That Blackwater ? now called Xe Services and based in North Carolina ? was
involved to some degree in the

secret operation will not surprise scholars of the Bush-Cheney strategy in
Iraq. Following the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, the
administration was willing to give risky, not to say shadowy, missions to
outside contractors.

It was a philosophy that was embraced by the CIA also. ?Outsourcing gave the
agency more protection in

case something went wrong,? an unnamed intelligence official told The
Washington Post.

It was already known that the CIA had willingly subcontracted work in another
area that threatened to be

particularly difficult politically ? the interrogation of terror suspects held
in secret prisons in foreign countries.

In Iraq, the US military also grew in

creasingly dependent on outside contractors to do some of the more tricky
security work and among those companies, Blackwater, founded by Erik Prince,
a former Navy Seal, was the biggest. The company?s guards in Iraq were
rumoured to be receiving salaries of $1,000 (£600) a day.

Blackwater had many former CIA employees on its payroll and even gave the
agency access to its facilities in North Carolina to help train its
operatives for dangerous missions.

The Bush adminstration?s relationship with Blackwater eventually became a
source of political embarrassment as questions started to be asked about the
manner of its operations in Iraq and the degree to which its people were
accountable for their often lethal activities there.

It came under scrutiny first in March 2004 when four of its employees were
killed by a mob in Fallujah, then under Sunni Arab control, in an incident
that led to a month-long assault on the city by allied forces. More
damaging, however, were the events in Baghdad?s Nisoor Square in September
2007 when Blackwater employees opened fire while protecting a passing US
diplomatic

convoy, killing 17 civilians. As a direct consequence, the government in Iraq
has since refused to allow the firm to operate on its territory.

After Mr Panetta first alerted members of Congress to the convert programme,
Ms Feinstein said she considered that it had been ?outside the law?. In the
late 1970s President Gerald Ford signed an executive order forbidding the
CIA from carrying out assassinations, in part because of the scandals of its
involvement in attempts to kill Fidel Castro and other Latin American
leaders.

Mr Panetta allegedly told Ms Feinstein and other members of her committee that
Mr Cheney had informed the CIA that killing leaders of al-Qa?ida would be
the same as killing soldiers in battle. Because Mr Bush had declared a war
on terrorists, he

argued, the agency was therefore under no obligation to tell the US Congress
what it was doing.

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