Another day, another dollop of bad news for Blackwater (recently renamed Xe Services LLC), the private security company that is losing more and more of its shroud of secrecy every day.
On Wednesday, The New York Times reported that Blackwater was allegedly involved in a secret CIA program to kidnap and/or kill top al-Qaeda members in Iraq and Afghanistan. Blackwater’s involvement in this “targeted killing” program supposedly amounted to little more than engaging in training activities at a CIA facility in Virginia. According to the Times, the CIA did not have a formal contract with Blackwater, but instead had individual agreements with top company officials, including company founder Erik Prince.
Quoting various unnamed intelligence officials, the Times reported that the program, launched in 2001, was initially managed by the CIA’s counterterrorism center. In 2004, some of its functions were transferred to Blackwater. In July, CIA Director Leon Panetta briefed Congress about the program, claiming he had only recently learned about it and that he promptly terminated it. Officials insist that during the time the program was in existence, no “kill and capture” missions were ever carried out. (Although the CIA conceded to the Washington Post that the program was “much more than a PowerPoint presentation.”) The government reportedly spent “well under” $20 million on the eight-year, on-again, off-again program.
If the allegations are true, the ethical and legal implications are staggering. For example:
1) Separation of Powers/Abuse of Power: The House Intelligence Committee is investigating whether the CIA broke the law by not informing Congress about the secret program when it began in 2001. There is speculation that former Vice President Dick Cheney directed the CIA not to tell Congress about it. In addition, the CIA is forbidden from carrying out political assassinations by an executive order signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976. In short, the CIA’s conduct in this matter seems like something out of The Bourne Identity.
2) Outsourcing Inherently Governmental Functions: Intelligence and counter-intelligence operations fall squarely within the definition of an inherently government function, or activities that must be performed by government employees; therefore, Blackwater’s participation in this program may have violated the law, or at least government policy.
3) Revolving Door Abuses: Blackwater’s senior management includes or has included former high-ranking government officials, some of whom came to the company at around the same time Blackwater got involved in the targeted killing program. For instance, J. Cofer Black, former head of counterterrorism for the CIA, joined Blackwater in early 2005 just three months after retiring from the government. The CIA also reportedly uses the company’s training facilities in North Carolina.
4) Contracting Fraud/Waste/Abuse: From a basic cost standpoint, you have to wonder about the wisdom of spending millions of dollars on a project that purportedly never got beyond training exercises in the Virginia woods. Again, that money was spent through informal agreements between the CIA and specific Blackwater officials – there was never a formal contract with the company itself. According to the Times, Blackwater maintains a number of classified contracts with the CIA. Good luck trying to find out the specifics of these contracts, such as how much they are worth, what specific services Blackwater is supposed to provide under them and whether they were competitively awarded.
Underlying all of this is the involvement of Blackwater, a company that has been deeply embroiled in controversy for the last several years. This affair underscores why, from a purely business image point of view, a contractor sometimes has to say no when the government presents them with a business opportunity that raises red flags like the ones described here.
POGO can’t help but wonder if this latest Blackwater brouhaha has anything to do with the war crimes lawsuits filed by Iraqis in Virginia federal court that we blogged about two weeks ago. That litigation is generating a steady stream of devastating allegations about the activities and inner workings of Blackwater.
For more information, read this excellent article in The Nation by investigative journalist and Blackwater expert Jeremy Scahill.
-- Neil Gordon