In the fall of 2008, the US Special Operations Command asked top US diplomats in Pakistan and Afghanistan for detailed information on refugee camps along the Afghanistan Pakistan border and a list of humanitarian aid organizations working in those camps. On October 6, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, sent a cable marked "Confidential" to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the CIA, US Central Command and several US embassies saying that some of the requests, which came in the form of emails, "suggested that agencies intend to use the data for targeting purposes." Other requests, according to the cable, "indicate it would be used for “NO STRIKE” purposes." The cable, which was issued jointly by the US embassies in Kabul and Islamabad, declared: "We are concerned about providing information gained from humanitarian organizations to military personnel, especially for reasons that remain unclear. Particularly worrisome, this does not seem to us a very efficient way to gather accurate information."
What this cable says in plain terms is that at least one person within the US Special Operations Command actually asked US diplomats in Kabul and/or Islamabad point-blank for information on refugee camps to be used in a targeted killing or capture operation. It also seems possible whoever made that request actually put it in an email (FOIA anyone?). It is no longer a publicly deniable secret that US special operations forces and the CIA have engaged in offensive operations in Pakistan, but this cable is evidence that they sought to exploit the US embassies' humanitarian aid operations through back channel communications to conduct potentially lethal operations. Needless to say, this type of request is extremely dangerous for aid workers because it reinforces the belief that USAID and other nongovernmental organizations are fronts for the CIA. In November 2009, a US military intelligence source told me that some Blackwater contractors working for US special operations forces in Pakistan have posed as aid workers. "Nobody even gives them a second thought," he said. Blackwater, at the time, denied it was operating in Pakistan.
Speaking of contractors, the cable also reveals that in addition to the requests from SOCOM and the US Defense Attache, a SOCOM contractor had also asked US diplomats for "information on camps along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border which are housing Afghan refugees and/or Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)." Specifically, the cable adds, SOCOM and its "contractor" have "requested information on camp names and locations, camp status, number of IDS/refugees and ethnic breakdown, and NGO/humanitarian relief organizations working in the camps." The name of the contractor has been blacked out on the cable released by Wikileaks.
It is certainly possible that the contractor referred to in this cable is Blackwater, which held several contracts in 2008 with SOCOM, though that world is the murkiest of the murky and any contract for lethal operations would be shrouded and heavily compartmentalized. (For a detailed explanation of Blackwater and Pakistan, see "The Secret US War in Pakistan"). By Blackwater owner Erik Prince's own admission, his private army has long been in the thick of things along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, precisely where, according to the cables, SOCOM wanted information on refugee and IDP camps. In a speech in January, Erik Prince described Blackwater's operations at four Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) he said he controls in Afghanistan. "We built four bases and we staffed them and we run them," Prince said. He described them as being in the north, south, east and west of Afghanistan. "Spin Boldak in the south, which is the major drug trans-shipment area, in the east at a place called FOB Lonestar, which is right at the foothills of Tora Bora mountain. In fact if you ski off Tora Bora mountain, you can ski down to our firebase," Prince said, adding that Blackwater also has a base near Herat and another location. FOB Lonestar is approximately fifteen miles from the Pakistan border. "Who else has built a [Forward Operating Base] along the main infiltration route for the Taliban and the last known location for Osama bin Laden?" Prince said earlier this year. In the January speech, Prince called those fighting the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan "barbarians" who "crawled out of the sewer."
Whether Blackwater was directly involved in the requests to US diplomats for information on refugee camps may never be known. Whether it was Blackwater or another contractor, the role of a private US company in a potentially lethal operation in Pakistan is an important aspect of this cable to be probed further.
From the October 2008 cable, it is evident that US diplomats in Kabul and Islamabad were disturbed by the requests; in it they ask various US military, intelligence and government entities for "clarification of the origin and purpose of this task." At the same time the cable suggests that if the CIA or Special Operations Forces wanted such information, they "should send a front channel cable to the appropriate Embassy" or a representative of the director of national intelligence rather than by emailing or orally requesting the information from embassy personnel. Clearly, the back-channel approach was used for a reason.