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The CIA in 2004 outsourced portions of a secret program to kidnap or assassinate terrorists to the controversial private security firm Blackwater USA, now called Xe Services, according to news reports.
The New York Times reports that according to current and former government officials, Blackwater's involvement was a key factor in CIA Director Leon Panetta's decision to cancel the program and divulge it to Congress during an emergency meeting with Congress in June. Congress had not been informed previously of the program's existence, allegedly under orders from then-Vice President Dick Cheney, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last month.
The New York Times reports:
Executives from Blackwater, which has generated controversy because of its aggressive tactics in Iraq, helped the spy agency with planning, training and surveillance. The C.I.A. spent several million dollars on the program, which did not successfully capture or kill any terrorist suspects....
It is unclear whether the C.I.A. had planned to use the contractors to actually capture or kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance in the program. American spy agencies have in recent years outsourced some highly controversial work, including the interrogation of prisoners. But government officials said that bringing outsiders into a program with lethal authority raised deep concerns about accountability in covert operations.
"Outsourcing gave the agency more protection in case something went wrong," said a retired intelligence officer intimately familiar with the assassination program.
The contract was awarded to Blackwater ... in part because of its close ties to the CIA and because of its record in carrying out covert assignments overseas, the officials said. The security contractor's senior management has included high-ranking former CIA officials – among them J. Cofer Black, the agency's former top counterterrorism official, who joined the company in early 2005, three months after retiring from government service.
The Post adds that although the program never became operational, "the Blackwater phase involved 'lots of time spent training,' mostly near the CIA's covert facility near Williamsburg," according to a former government official.
The Times and Post reports came after Joseph Finder, an author of espionage thrillers, claimed in The Daily Beast earlier this week that Mr. Panetta jumped the gun when he brought the assassination program to the attention of Congress earlier this year, as the program "wasn't much more than a PowerPoint presentation and a task force assigned to think it through."
It wasn't really a coherent program at all so much as a collection of schemes, each attempting to achieve the same objective: to kill terrorists. This was one of perhaps dozens of ideas that had been kicked around at Langley since September 2001, when George W. Bush issued a presidential "finding" authorizing the agency to use deadly force against Osama bin Laden or other terrorists.
Under three successive CIA directors, these plans for paramilitary hit squads had been given three different names.... But they never got off the ground. The logistical, legal, and political obstacles proved to be insurmountable. George Tenet gave up on it — too many moving parts. Porter Goss took another stab at it, but nothing, and then Gen. Michael V. Hayden's team studied it for a while but envisioned nothing but trouble. So there was a reason that none of the last three CIA directors had briefed Congress about it: There was nothing to brief.
Mr. Finder says that as a result of misunderstanding the status of the assassination program, Panetta incorrectly accused the CIA of lying to Congress. But the CIA said Finder's article is incorrect, writes Congressional Quarterly's SpyTalk blog.
"This story rests on the mistaken premise that Director Panetta told the Congress the CIA had broken the law," [CIA spokesman George] Little told SpyTalk.
"He did not. It's also wrong to suggest that the Director said the Agency had misled the Congress. He did no such thing. He decided that the time had come to brief Congress on a counterterrorism effort that was, in fact, much more than a PowerPoint presentation."