Blackwater: CIA Assassins?


blackwater2-300x200In April 2002, the CIA paid Blackwater more than $5 million to deploy a small team of men inside Afghanistan during the early stages of US operations in the country. A month later, Erik Prince, the company’s owner and a former Navy SEAL, flew to Afghanistan as part of the original twenty-man Blackwater contingent. Blackwater worked for the CIA at its station in Kabul as well as in Shkin, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where they operated out of a mud fortress known as the Alamo. It was the beginning of a long relationship between Blackwater, Prince and the CIA.

Now the New York Times is reporting that in 2004 the CIA hired Blackwater “as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda.” According to the Times, “it is unclear whether the CIA had planned to use the contractors to capture or kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance.”

The Times reports that “the CIA did not have a formal contract with Blackwater for this program but instead had individual agreements with top company officials, including the founder, Erik D. Prince, a politically connected former member of the Navy Seals and the heir to a family fortune.” A retired intelligence officer “intimately familiar with the assassination program” told the Washington Post, “Outsourcing gave the agency more protection in case something went wrong.” The Post reported that Blackwater “was given operational responsibility for targeting terrorist commanders and was awarded millions of dollars for training and weaponry, but the program was canceled before any missions were conducted.”

“What the agency was doing with Blackwater scares the hell out of me,” said Jack Rice, a former CIA field operator who worked for the directorate of operations, which runs covert paramilitary activities for the CIA. “When the agency actually cedes all oversight and power to a private organization, an organization like Blackwater, most importantly they lose control and don’t understand what’s going on,” Rice told The Nation. “What makes it even worse is that you then can turn around and have deniability. They can say, ‘It wasn’t us, we weren’t the ones making the decisions.’ That’s the best of both worlds. It’s analogous to what we hear about torture that was being done in the name of Americans, when we simply handed somebody over to the Syrians or the Egyptians or others and then we turn around and say, ‘We’re not torturing people.’”

Reached by telephone, Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that because of her oath of secrecy on sensitive intelligence issues, she could neither confirm nor deny that Congress was aware of Blackwater’s involvement in this program before the Times report. Schakowsky also declined to comment on whether Blackwater came up at a June briefing by CIA director Leon Panetta, which she attended. That briefing sparked calls for an investigation into whether Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to conceal an assassination program from Congress.

“What we know now, if this is true, is that Blackwater was part of the highest level, the innermost circle strategizing and exercising strategy within the Bush administration,” Schakowsky told The Nation. “Erik Prince operated at the highest and most secret level of the government. Clearly Prince was more trusted than the US Congress because Vice President Cheney made the decision not to brief Congress. This shows that there was absolutely no space whatsoever between the Bush administration and Blackwater.”

As The Nation has reported, Blackwater continues to operate on the US government payroll in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where it works for the State Department and the Defense Department. The CIA will not confirm whether Blackwater continues to work for the agency (or, for that matter, if it ever has).

Blackwater’s work for the CIA was the result of meetings in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 between Prince and Alvin “Buzzy” Krongard, then-executive director of the CIA, the agency’s number-three man. Krongard and Prince, according to a former Blackwater executive interviewed by The Nation, “were good buddies.” In a 2006 interview for my book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Krongard said that the company was hired to provide security for the CIA in Afghanistan. “Blackwater got a contract because they were the first people that could get people on the ground,” Krongard said. “The only concern we had was getting the best security for our people. If we thought Martians could provide it, I guess we would have gone after them.”

The relationship between Krongard and Prince apparently got chummier after the contract was signed. One former Blackwater executive said in 2006, “Krongard came down and visited Blackwater [at company headquarters in North Carolina], and I had to take his kids around and let them shoot on the firing range a number of times.” That visit took place after the CIA contract was signed, according to the former executive, and Krongard “may have come down just to see the company that he had just hired.”

The relationship between Blackwater and the CIA quickly evolved. Shortly after Prince arrived in Afghanistan in May 2002, according to a former Blackwater executive who was with Prince, the Blackwater owner focused on winning more business with government agencies, providing private soldiers for hire. In 2002 Prince, along with former CIA operative Jamie Smith, created Blackwater Security Consulting, which would put former Navy SEALs and other special ops on the market.

Prince subsequently tried to join the CIA but was reportedly denied when his polygraph test came back inconclusive. Still, he maintained close ties with the agency. He reportedly was given a “green badge” that permitted him access to most CIA stations. “He’s over there [at CIA headquarters] regularly, probably once a month or so,” a CIA source told Harper’s journalist Ken Silverstein in 2006. “He meets with senior people, especially in the [directorate of operations].”

Prince would also go on to hire many senior Bush-era CIA officials to work at Blackwater. In July 2007 Buzzy Krongard joined the company’s board; Prince offered him a $3,500 honorarium per meeting attended plus all expenses paid. “Your experience and insight would be ideal to help our team determine where we are and where we are going,” Prince wrote in a letter to Krongard. At the time his brother, Howard “Cookie” Krongard, was the State Department inspector general responsible for overseeing Blackwater’s work for the State Department. In September 2007 California Democratic Representative Henry Waxman accused Cookie Krongard of impeding a Justice Department investigation into Blackwater over allegations the company was illegally smuggling weapons into Iraq.

Prince hired several other former CIA officials to run what amounted to his own private CIA. Most notable among these was J. Cofer Black, who was running the CIA’s counterterrorism operations and leading the hunt for Osama bin Laden when Blackwater was initially hired by the CIA in 2002. Black left the government in 2005 and took a job at Blackwater running Prince’s private intelligence company, Total Intelligence Solutions.

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While at the CIA, Black ran the “extraordinary rendition” program and coordinated the CIA “Jawbreaker” team sent into Afghanistan to kill or capture bin Laden and senior Al Qaeda leaders. In the days immediately after 9/11, he told Bush that his men would aim to kill Al Qaeda operatives. “When we’re through with them, they will have flies walking across their eyeballs,” Black promised Bush. When Black told Bush the operation would not be bloodless, the president reportedly said, “Let’s go. That’s war. That’s what we’re here to win.”

Before the CIA Jawbreaker team deployed on September 27, 2001, Black gave his men direct and macabre directions: “I don’t want bin Laden and his thugs captured, I want them dead…. They must be killed. I want to see photos of their heads on pikes. I want bin Laden’s head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to be able to show bin Laden’s head to the president. I promised him I would do that.” According to CIA operative Gary Schroen, a member of the Jawbreaker team, it was the first time in his thirty-year career he had been ordered to assassinate an adversary rather than attempt a capture.

In September 2002, five months after Blackwater’s first known contract with the CIA in Afghanistan, Black testified to Congress about the new “operational flexibility” employed in the “war on terror.” “There was a before 9/11, and there was an after 9/11,” Black said. “After 9/11 the gloves come off.” Black outlined a “no-limits, aggressive, relentless, worldwide pursuit of any terrorist who threatens us,” saying it “is the only way to go and is the bottom line.” Black would later brag, in 2004, that “over 70 percent” of Al Qaeda’s leadership had been arrested, detained or killed, and that “more than 3,400 of their operatives and supporters have also been detained and put out of an action.” The Times reports that the Blackwater-CIA assassination program “did not successfully capture or kill any terrorist suspects.”

In addition to Black, Total Intelligence’s executives include CEO Robert Richer, the former associate deputy director of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and second-ranking official in charge of clandestine operations. From 1999 to 2004, Richer was head of the CIA’s Near East and South Asia Division, where he ran covert operations in the Middle East and South Asia. As part of his duties, he was the CIA liaison with Jordan’s King Abdullah, a key US ally and Blackwater client, and briefed George W. Bush on the burgeoning Iraqi resistance in its early stages.

Total Intelligence’s chief operating officer is Enrique “Ric” Prado, a twenty-four-year CIA veteran and former senior executive officer in the Directorate of Operations. He spent more than a decade working in the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and ten years with the CIA’s “paramilitary” Special Operations Group.

Total Intelligence is run out of an office on the ninth floor of a building in the Ballston area of Arlington, Virginia. Its Global Fusion Center, complete with large-screen TVs broadcasting international news channels and computer stations staffed by analysts surfing the web, “operates around the clock every day of the year” and is modeled after the CIA’s counterterrorist center, once run by Black. The firm employs at least sixty-five full-time staff–some estimates say it’s closer to 100. “Total Intel brings the…skills traditionally honed by CIA operatives directly to the board room,” Black said when the company launched.

Representative Schakowsky says the House Intelligence Committee is investigating the CIA assassination program and will probe alleged links to Blackwater. “The presidential memos (often referred to as ‘findings’) authorizing covert action like the lethal activities of the CIA and Blackwater have not yet surfaced,” says Ray McGovern, a retired twenty-seven-year CIA analyst who once served as George H.W. Bush’s national security briefer. “They will, in due course, if knowledgeable sources continue to put the Constitution and courage above secrecy oaths.”

Blackwater Strikes Back

The Times report comes as Prince and his Blackwater empire are facing the prospect of a potentially explosive civil trial over the killing of Iraqi civilians. Attorney Susan Burke and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), who are suing Prince and his companies on behalf of their Iraqi victims, have alleged that Prince is “equivalent to a top mafia boss who is responsible for all the day-to-day crimes committed at his direction and behest.” If the case proceeds, the process of discovery could blow the lid off some of the darkest secrets of the powerful security contractor and its secretive owner. Burke and CCR are suing Prince and his companies directly rather than his individual employees because they say Prince “wholly owns and personally controls all Defendants.” Burke also alleges that Prince has committed “violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a federal statute permitting private parties to seek redress from criminal enterprises who damage their property.” Among the allegations are war crimes, extra-judicial killings and assault and battery of Iraqis.

Jeremy Scahill, a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute, is the author ofBlackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army.

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