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Pentagon inquiry into freelance 'spy cell'

A US defence department official is under investigation for allegedly hiring private contractors to gather intelligence on suspected insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the case, said that Michael D. Furlong directed a defence contract to gather information about the region that could be shared with military units. After military officials suspected that he was using Defense Department money for an off-the-books spy operation, defense officials shut down that part of the contract, the official said.

The story was first reported by The New York Times in yesterday's editions, quoting unidentified military and business sources as saying that Furlong, now a senior civilian employee at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, hired subcontractors who had former US intelligence and special forces operatives on their payrolls. The newspaper said some of the information collected by the contractors was used to track down and attack militants.

"The story makes some serious allegations and raises numerous unanswered questions that warrant further review by the department," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

The military in mid-2008 put Furlong in charge of a program to use private companies to gather information about Afghanistan's political and tribal culture, the Times reported.

Part of the original $22 million contract that Furlong was directing remains intact, the official said, because it provides the funding for nine workers involved in information-gathering, translation and similar work. Those workers are employed by International Media Ventures with offices in Florida, Texas and elsewhere.

Nine employees from International Media Ventures were hired by the US military to serve as information analysts and in other administrative jobs at the International Security Assistance Force headquarters operations center in Kabul, said Maj. Steven Cole, a spokesman for the international military coalition in Afghanistan.

"We are not aware of, nor responsible for, any other activities performed by this company or any of its subsidiaries," Cole said.

Furlong continues to work for U.S. Strategic Command as a "strategic planner and technology integration adviser" at the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center at Lackland Air Force Base.

Master Sgt. Kevin Allen, a spokesman for US Strategic Command, said Furlong began working there in February 2008 but was soon assigned to support US Central Command, which oversees the war in Afghanistan.

Allen declined to make Furlong available for an interview or confirm that Furlong was under investigation.