CIA 'put out contracts on al-Qa'ida chiefs'

The controversial Blackwater private security firm was secretly hired by the CIA in 2004 to help with the agency’s dirty work of attempting to assassinate leading members of al-Qa’ida, two American newspapers reported today.

Executives from the firm helped the spy agency with planning, training and surveillance as a part of a multimillion-dollar programme, The New York Times said, citing current and former government officials.

Whether it was ever intended for Blackwater operatives to be deployed actually to carry out the killings has not been established. But as one official told the newspaper: “It’s wrong to think this counter-terrorism programme was confined to briefing slides or doodles on a cafeteria napkin. It went well beyond that.”

Even before yesterday’s revelation, the covert plan was a deeply sensitive topic on Capitol Hill. Allegations surfaced earlier this summer that the then vice-president, Dick Cheney, had ordered the CIA to keep the programme’s existence a secret from Congress.

It now seems that Leon Panetta, the current director of the CIA, decided in June not only to formally end the covert programme but also belatedly to brief members of Congress, precisely because of the manner in which Blackwater had been involved.

While the CIA did not address the media reports last night, a spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, called the decision by Mr Panetta to end the programme “clear and straightforward”. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, was also unable to offer any further details but noted that it “is too easy to contract out work that you don’t want to accept responsibility for”.

Much is still not known about the details of the operation or indeed exactly how far it was taken. However, sources told The Washington Post that Blackwater was given “operational responsibility” for it. There seems little question that millions of dollars were paid to the company for training, surveillance and planning for the missions, although there is no suggestion that anyone was actually assassinated under the programme.

That Blackwater – now called Xe Services and based in North Carolina – was involved to some degree in the secret operation will not surprise scholars of the Bush-Cheney strategy in Iraq. Following the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, the administration was willing to give risky, not to say shadowy, missions to outside contractors.

It was a philosophy that was embraced by the CIA also. “Outsourcing gave the agency more protection in case something went wrong,” an unnamed intelligence official told The Washington Post.

It was already known that the CIA had willingly subcontracted work in another area that threatened to be particularly difficult politically – the interrogation of terror suspects held in secret prisons in foreign countries.

In Iraq, the US military also grew in creasingly dependent on outside contractors to do some of the more tricky security work and among those companies, Blackwater, founded by Erik Prince, a former Navy Seal, was the biggest. The company’s guards in Iraq were rumoured to be receiving salaries of $1,000 (£600) a day.

Blackwater had many former CIA employees on its payroll and even gave the agency access to its facilities in North Carolina to help train its operatives for dangerous missions.

The Bush adminstration’s relationship with Blackwater eventually became a source of political embarrassment as questions started to be asked about the manner of its operations in Iraq and the degree to which its people were accountable for their often lethal activities there.

It came under scrutiny first in March 2004 when four of its employees were killed by a mob in Fallujah, then under Sunni Arab control, in an incident that led to a month-long assault on the city by allied forces. More damaging, however, were the events in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square in September 2007 when Blackwater employees opened fire while protecting a passing US diplomatic convoy, killing 17 civilians. As a direct consequence, the government in Iraq has since refused to allow the firm to operate on its territory.

After Mr Panetta first alerted members of Congress to the convert programme, Ms Feinstein said she considered that it had been “outside the law”. In the late 1970s President Gerald Ford signed an executive order forbidding the CIA from carrying out assassinations, in part because of the scandals of its involvement in attempts to kill Fidel Castro and other Latin American leaders.

Mr Panetta allegedly told Ms Feinstein and other members of her committee that Mr Cheney had informed the CIA that killing leaders of al-Qa’ida would be the same as killing soldiers in battle. Because Mr Bush had declared a war on terrorists, he argued, the agency was therefore under no obligation to tell the US Congress what it was doing.