The powerful private military contractor Blackwater regularly participated in covert "snatch and grab" operations of suspected Iraqi and Afghani insurgents with the CIA for two years, reports The New York Times.
The almost nightly raids in Iraq and Afghanistan occurred in between 2004 and 2006 and teamed Blackwater guards with CIA officers raising questions whether the private military contractor's use of force was only for defensive purposes.
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.
According to the Times, the relationship between Blackwater and the CIA grew out of the spy agency paying the private military contractor to guard its stations set up in Afghanistan and Iraq as the conflicts began in those two countries. But as the Iraq insurgency intensified in 2005, CIA officers were banned from traveling outside the Green Zone without a security escort, even when agents engaged in offensive operations with Special Forces.
This, according to the Times, led to a mutation in mission.
That gave Blackwater greater influence over C.I.A. clandestine operations, since company personnel helped decide the safest way to conduct the missions.
The former American intelligence officials said that Blackwater guards were supposed to only provide perimeter security during raids, leaving it up to C.I.A. officers and Special Operations military personnel to capture or kill suspected insurgents or other targets.
“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,” said one former intelligence official.
But in the chaos of the operations, the roles of Blackwater, C.I.A., and military personnel sometimes merged. Former C.I.A. officials said that Blackwater guards often appeared eager to get directly involved in the operations. Experts said that the C.I.A.’s use of contractors in clandestine operations falls into a legal gray area because of the vagueness of language laying out what tasks only government employees may perform.
Blackwater spokesman Mark Corallo told the Times that the private military contractor never had contracts with the CIA or Special Forces to conduct raids against insurgents anywhere in the world.
The CIA reacted to questions by the Times stating that it uses private contractors to “enhance the skills of our own work force, just as American law permits.”
Counterterrorism officials told The Washington Post that Blackwater guards had participated in firefights during CIA raids but characterized their use of force as defensive in nature. However, one source told the Post that Blackwater guards were used offensively during raids.
But when the time came to carry out those raids -- often against figures who were thought to be al-Qaeda leaders -- some CIA field officers assigned responsibilities among the available personnel without regard to which ones were contractors or federal employees, according to the source, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss classified operations.
That meant Blackwater personnel helped to kill some of the targets and did not merely defend the CIA officers taking part in the raids, the source said.
These revelations follow a Vanity Fair article last week where Blackwater founder Erik Prince told reporter Adam Ciralsky, once a CIA lawyer, that he has been a CIA asset since after the 9-11 attacks "helping to craft, fund, and execute operations ranging from inserting personnel into 'denied areas'—places U.S. intelligence has trouble penetrating—to assembling hit teams targeting al-Qaeda members and their allies."
The ties between Blackwater, rebranded Xe Services because of constant bad publicity, and the CIA run even deeper as former agency executives have taken jobs with the private military contractor upon leaving the intelligence service, reports the Times. Cofer Black, who ran the CIA's Counterterrorism Center from 1999 to 2002, went on to become the vice chairman of Blackwater USA from 2005 to 2008 after serving the State Department as its ambassador for counterterrorism.
Until last year, Blackwater was the State Department's biggest security contractor until it ended its contract because of the 2007 massacre in Nisour Square in Baghdad when five Blackwater guards opened fire in the crowded square, killing 17 civilians. The trial of the five guards will begin at the end of January. The charges include 14 counts of manslaughter and 20 counts of attempted manslaughter.
The controversies surrounding Blackwater have only gained momentum since with allegations that the U.S. government hired Blackwater to assassinate key al Qaeda leaders, to assist in Predator drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to provide security for CIA extraordinary rendition flights. Other allegations against Blackwater and Prince include gun smuggling into Iraq, bribing Iraqi officials to buy up support after the Nisour Square shooting, and murdering former employees the company feared would talk to investigators.
Currently, the House Intelligence Committee is investigating Blackwater's involvement in the CIA assassination program while a federal grand jury in North Carolina investigates other illegal activity. CIA Director Leon Panetta has also ordered an internal review of all CIA contracts with Blackwater to ensure they are only security-related and not operational in nature, according to The Washington Post.
♦ Photo of Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater USA, by the Defense Department/WikiMediaCommons