In April 2002, the CIA paid Blackwater more than $5 million to deploy a small team of men inside Afghanistan during the early stages of US operations in the country. A month later, Erik Prince, the company’s owner and a former Navy SEAL, flew to Afghanistan as part of the original twenty-man Blackwater contingent. Blackwater worked for the CIA at its station in Kabul as well as in Shkin, along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where they operated out of a mud fortress known as the Alamo. It was the beginning of a long relationship between Blackwater, Prince and the CIA.
Now the New York Times is reporting that in 2004 the CIA hired Blackwater “as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top operatives of Al Qaeda.” According to the Times, “it is unclear whether the CIA had planned to use the contractors to capture or kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance.”
The Times reports that “the CIA did not have a formal contract with Blackwater for this program but instead had individual agreements with top company officials, including the founder, Erik D. Prince, a politically connected former member of the Navy Seals and the heir to a family fortune.” A retired intelligence officer “intimately familiar with the assassination program” told the Washington Post, “Outsourcing gave the agency more protection in case something went wrong.” The Post reported that Blackwater “was given operational responsibility for targeting terrorist commanders and was awarded millions of dollars for training and weaponry, but the program was canceled before any missions were conducted.”
“What the agency was doing with Blackwater scares the hell out of me,” said Jack Rice, a former CIA field operator who worked for the directorate of operations, which runs covert paramilitary activities for the CIA. “When the agency actually cedes all oversight and power to a private organization, an organization like Blackwater, most importantly they lose control and don’t understand what’s going on,” Rice told The Nation. “What makes it even worse is that you then can turn around and have deniability. They can say, ‘It wasn’t us, we weren’t the ones making the decisions.’ That’s the best of both worlds. It’s analogous to what we hear about torture that was being done in the name of Americans, when we simply handed somebody over to the Syrians or the Egyptians or others and then we turn around and say, ‘We’re not torturing people.'”
Reached by telephone, Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that because of her oath of secrecy on sensitive intelligence issues, she could neither confirm nor deny that Congress was aware of Blackwater’s involvement in this program before the Times report. Schakowsky also declined to comment on whether Blackwater came up at a June briefing by CIA director Leon Panetta, which she attended. That briefing sparked calls for an investigation into whether Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to conceal an assassination program from Congress.
“What we know now, if this is true, is that Blackwater was part of the highest level, the innermost circle strategizing and exercising strategy within the Bush administration,” Schakowsky told The Nation. “Erik Prince operated at the highest and most secret level of the government. Clearly Prince was more trusted than the US Congress because Vice President Cheney made the decision not to brief Congress. This shows that there was absolutely no space whatsoever between the Bush administration and Blackwater.”
As The Nation has reported, Blackwater continues to operate on the US government payroll in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where it works for the State Department and the Defense Department. The CIA will not confirm whether Blackwater continues to work for the agency (or, for that matter, if it ever has).
Blackwater’s work for the CIA was the result of meetings in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 between Prince and Alvin “Buzzy” Krongard, then-executive director of the CIA, the agency’s number-three man. Krongard and Prince, according to a former Blackwater executive interviewed by The Nation, “were good buddies.” In a 2006 interview for my book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, Krongard said that the company was hired to provide security for the CIA in Afghanistan. “Blackwater got a contract because they were the first people that could get people on the ground,” Krongard said. “The only concern we had was getting the best security for our people. If we thought Martians could provide it, I guess we would have gone after them.”