Blackwater 'used in raids against insurgents'

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The CIA was again forced to fend off potentially grave allegations yesterday after claims emerged that for years during the George Bush era it regularly invited operatives from the private security contractor Blackwater to join covert and high-risk anti-insurgency operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even though the North Carolina-based private firm was originally hired merely to provide perimeter security to CIA personnel and operations centres in the countries, former employees are now alleging that over time the relationship between them and the intelligence agency became much deeper.

Those ties evolved to the point where armed security guards provided by Blackwater directly participated between 2004 and 2006 in so-called "snatch and grab" raids aimed at capturing and potentially killing insurgency leaders, The New York Times reported yesterday.

It was the latest in a series of revelations about the murky part played by Blackwater in America's two wars.

Members of Congress have increasingly become alarmed by the implications of what they are learning about Blackwater, notably in regard to questions of accountability. While Congress has direct oversight of the CIA and its operations overseas, that oversight crumbles if some of that work, some of it apparently of the most sensitive nature, is handed over to people who essentially are guns for hire.

The CIA yesterday denied that any line had been crossed in its use of the firm. "This agency, like many others, uses contractors in roles that complement and enhance the skills of our own workforce, just as American law permits," a spokesman, George Little, said in response to the article. However, the current CIA director, Leon Panetta, ordered a review of the agency's relationship with the company in July.

Blackwater, recently rebranded as Xe Services, similarly denied the allegations. "Blackwater USA was never under contract to participate in covert raids with CIA or special operations personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else. Any allegation to the contrary by any news organisation would be false," the spokesman Mark Corallo said.

Founded by Erik Prince, Blackwater was first hired by the US government in early 2002 to guard the CIA station in Kabul after the allied invasion. Before long, however, Blackwater was securing much larger and more lucrative contracts to ensure the safety of US personnel in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of its rapidly expanding corps of fighting men was recruited from the CIA and the military.

It was only after 17 civilians were gunned down by Blackwater employees in a Baghdad square in September 2007 – which led earlier this year to the cancellation of all its US government contracts in Iraq – that the nature of the company's relationship with the CIA came under more strenuous scrutiny. A federal grand jury in North Carolina is currently investigating the activities of the company overseas.

The chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, Rush Holt, a Democrat, told the New York Times that "the use of contractors in intelligence and paramilitary operations is a scandal waiting to be examined". He suggested that the use of Blackwater personnel "got way out of hand". The House Intelligence Committee is already investigating claims that the firm also became involved in a secret CIA programme, since abandoned, to track down and kill leaders of al-Qa'ida.

Xe Services also flatly denied a second allegation by the New York Times that Blackwater was also directly involved in the transportation of terror suspects to places for interrogation after they had been captured.

But even the notion that company personnel got sucked into actually taking part in the capture-and-assassination raids is certain to kick up new and difficult questions for the CIA. The New York Times said that it received its information anonymously from five former employees of the company and four former or current US intelligence officials.