Jeremy Scahill | The Nation

Jeremy Scahill

Jeremy Scahill

Dispatches on wars, the military-industrial complex and national security.

Taliban Leader Mullah Omar: The US and NATO Are Being Defeated in Afghanistan

In a communiqué marking the beginning of the Muslim holiday Eid-al-Adha, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, claimed his forces were making gains against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan and announced a new plan to increase attacks aimed at delivering a "crushing and decisive blow" against the presence of foreign forces. "The aim is to entangle the enemy in an exhausting war of attrition and wear it away like the former Soviet Union," declared Omar in his address on the "Festival of Sacrifice." Omar wrote that his forces had developed new short- and long-term strategies, saying that, overall, "our strategy is to increase our operations step by step and spread them to all parts of the country to compel the enemy to come out from their hideouts and then crush them through tactical raids." 

Omar's declaration comes amid reports that leaders at this week's NATO summit in Portugal plan to set 2014 as an end date for "combat" operations.

Omar portrayed the ongoing battle with US forces in Marjah and, more recently, in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar—where US-led forces code-named their operation "Dragon Strike"—as victories. Noting the surge in US and NATO casualties and deaths in Afghanistan, Omar wrote. "The moment of defeat of the invaders has approached," adding: "The enemy has been defeated on the battlefield. Now they rely on media hype and portray themselves as if making advancement but the ground realities are what you and we are witnessing. The enemy is retreating and facing siege in all parts of the country day in and day out. Their life casualties are spiraling up."

Current Taliban commanders and former senior officials of Omar's Taliban government recently told The Nation that while the US Special Operations Forces' targeted killing campaign against Taliban commanders has been successful, the strikes were actually producing a more radical generation of fighters and commanders. In his communication, Omar did not address the issue of the targeted killing campaign, but he did claim that morale among the Taliban remained high. "Our Mujahid people will never feel exhausted in the sacred path of Jihad, because it is a divine obligation," he wrote. "Fatigue can have no way into it."

Omar is never seen publicly, and US officials believe is hiding in Quetta, Pakistan. In interviews with The Nation in Afghanistan, several former and current Taliban leaders suggested that Omar was currently residing in Afghanistan. In the nine years since US forces toppled the Taliban government analysts have questioned the extent of his control over insurgent forces fighting to expel the United States and NATO. On the ground in Afghanistan, anti-US fighters tell different stories. Many say they are loyal to Omar and proclaim him the leader of the jihad, while other reports paint a picture of a fractured resistance with multiple groups. Omar "is the main figure and a powerful person and the emir of the Taliban," says Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban government's ambassador to Pakistan. Speaking at his home in Kabul where he is closely monitored by Karzai's security forces, Zaeef said, "Nobody knows where is he. If I know, the [Afghan] government should know, the Americans should know. It would be not safe. Nobody knows where is he, but he is alive." As for reports Omar has been captured, Zaeef laughs and says, "He was already captured so many times by the American media."

In his Eid-al-Adha communiqué, Omar blasted the Karzai government as a corrupt "puppet Kabul regime" subservient to Washington and rejected as "baseless propaganda" reports that senior Taliban officials have engaged in any negotiations with the Karzai government or US/NATO forces. "The cunning enemy which has occupied our country is trying, on the one hand, to expand its military operations…and, on the other hand, wants to throw dust into the eyes of the people by spreading the rumors of negotiation," Omar wrote. 

The Taliban leader's allegations mirror those of a US official who told McClatchy News Service in October that reports of senior Taliban meeting with Afghan or US officials were propaganda aimed at sowing dissent among the Taliban leadership. "This is a psychological operation, plain and simple," said the US official with firsthand knowledge of the Afghan government's strategies. "Exaggerating the significance of it is an effort to sow distrust within the insurgency."

In his declaration, Omar wrote:

 The enemy wants to cover up its failure in Afghanistan by wrongfully raising hollow hopes in the hearts of their respective people. The believing people of Afghanistan and the public of the world should not trust any news report or rumor about the stance of the Islamic Emirate disseminated by any one rather than  the leadership of the Islamic Emirate or the designated spokesmen, because such new reports are spread by the intelligence agencies of the hostile countries. Then the media outlets affiliated with these espionage entities, irresponsibly publish them with great fanfare. The aim is to play down the defeat [of the enemy] at the military field through media warfare. But these conspiracies will never prove effective against our brave people and mujahideen.

Omar also delivered his counterpoint to the US counterinsurgency doctrine, instructing his forces not to target civilian populations and to build ties in local communities, calling on his followers to ensure that their "Jihadic activities will not become a cause for  destruction of property and loss of life" of civilians, adding, "Anything that is not permissible in Islam, has no place in our military policy."

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US Businessman: Blackwater Paid Me to Buy Steroids and Weapons on Black Market for its Shooters

A Texas businessman who has worked extensively in Iraq claims that Blackwater paid him to purchase steroids and other drugs for its operatives in Baghdad, as well as more than 100 AK47s and massive amounts of ammunition on Baghdad's black market. Howard Lowry, who worked in Iraq from 2003-2009, also claims that he personally attended Blackwater parties where company personnel had large amounts of cocaine and blocks of hashish and would run around naked. At some of these parties, Lowry alleges, Blackwater operatives would randomly fire automatic weapons from their balconies into buildings full of Iraqi civilians. Lowry described the events as a "frat party gone wild" where "drug use was rampant." Lowry says he was told by Blackwater personnel that some of the men using the steroids he purchased were on the security detail of L. Paul Bremer, the original head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Lowry also claims that Blackwater's owner, Erik Prince, tried to enlist his help to win contracts for Blackwater with the Iraqi government using an off-shore security company, Greystone, which Prince owns. The purpose, Lowry says, was to conceal Greystone's relationship to Blackwater.

Lowry made his statements in a deposition on September 10 as part of a whistleblower lawsuit brought by two former Blackwater employees. The suit was filed in 2008 by former employees Brad and Melan Davis. They allege that Blackwater tried to bill the US government for a prostitute for its men in Afghanistan and for strippers in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The lawsuit claims that Prince personally benefitted from alleged fraud. The Nation obtained Lowry's deposition from publicly available court filings.

Blackwater, Lowry alleges, paid for the steroids using company funds and the purchases were coordinated by Blackwater's Iraq country manager. "Not only did I purchase the pharmaceuticals," Lowry said in his deposition, "but I was also given money and asked to acquire syringes and other forms or modes of injection as well." Lowry said that Blackwater used him to purchase the drugs and other devices because, unlike Blackwater personnel, he could move freely and discreetly around Baghdad. Lowry says he personally witnessed several Blackwater operatives injecting themselves with steroids.

Lowry says in the deposition that he was a close friend of Jerry Zovko, one of the four Blackwater men killed in the infamous ambush in Fallujah, Iraq in March 2004. Zovko, Lowry says, "provided me tremendous insight into the company and confirmed that the use of steroids and human growth hormone, testosterone, were pretty endemic to them and almost companywide." Lowry said that it was a "wide-ranging problem, and this included individuals that were on [L. Paul] Bremer's personal detail." Bremer was guarded by Blackwater when he ran the CPA from 2003-2004. Lowry says he would purchase the drugs for Blackwater "by the case," adding, "It was as large a quantity as I could get, which was usually a case." He said that the "volume I was being asked to purchase on a daily basis was going up substantially as time went on."

Lowry also claims that he purchased a wide variety of weapons, ammunition and armor for Blackwater on the black market in Baghdad. "I purchased no less than a hundred AK47s for Blackwater personnel to keep them safe," Lowry says. Such purchases, he says he believed, were necessary because Blackwater was not adequately arming its personnel.

Lowry also describes instances of Blackwater personnel firing randomly at Iraqi pedestrians and into buildings for no apparent reason. He details one night where several Blackwater operatives were at his hotel drinking until 5am. When they left, Lowry says, they fired their weapons at random as they drove off. Lowry describes parties that he says some Blackwater personnel would throw at the al Hamra hotel in Baghdad that he says were like "a frat party" with rampant drug use:

One of the suites would be absolutely packed with gentlemen running around with either no clothes on, no shirt on. It was like a frat party gone wild. Drug use was rampant. There was cocaine all on the tables. There were blocks of hash, and you could smell it in the air…walking up to the door.

Lowry described one party where "there was a pile of cocaine that one Blackwater person had estimated to be over an ounce of coke." Lowry said, "to me, considering the job that these gentlemen are doing…at that time [they] were protecting the US ambassador, Ambassador Bremer, seemed a little bit out—well, beyond out of control. And these parties were a weekly ritual." Lowry alleges that at these parties on several occasions Blackwater personnel would pull out AK47s and go out onto the balcony and "would just spray the building next door, which housed Iraqi civilians."

Lowry also says that he had several meetings with Erik Prince where Prince asked him for assistance in winning contracts with the Iraqi government for an off-shore company Prince owns called Greystone. It is registered in Barbados. Lowry, who says he knew the Iraqi Interior and Defense Ministers "very well," claims Prince wanted to offer the Iraqi government Greystone's training and security services. Lowry says that Prince stated "very clearly" to him that Greystone was "set up to deflect any liability, future liability, that he may have with respect to any weapons sales or any bodily harm or anything else, contract issues with both the US and the Iraqi governments." Lowry claims the Iraqis were aware of Greystone's connection to Blackwater and "detested" the companies.

Lawyers representing the self-exiled Blackwater owner have asked a federal judge in Virginia for a protective order against the tenacious lawyer who took Lowry's deposition. For years, attorney Susan Burke has pursued Prince and Blackwater with a string of civil lawsuits. In August, Burke flew to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where Prince and his family have relocated, to conduct a seven-hour deposition of Prince in connection to the whistleblower claim she filed on behalf of the former Blackwater employees. After the deposition ended on August 23, according to Burke, Prince threatened to "come after" her.

Soon thereafter, Prince's lawyers declared the entirety of the transcript of Prince's deposition to be confidential material and asserted that it should be sealed. Prince's attorneys filed papers in the case asking the judge to allow Prince and his lawyers to classify any information or documents Prince provides or any information or documents Burke obtains from Prince or Blackwater as "confidential" and therefore barred from public dissemination. Prince's lawyers have also asked that all documents they provide in the case be destroyed or returned within 120 days of the conclusion of the case.

Prince's lawyers have alleged that Burke intends to use the media to embarrass Prince and to litigate her case outside of court and have asked for a "gag order" against her and the other attorneys litigating the case. Burke, in her court filing, points out that the actions of Prince and his companies have generated tremendous publicity and attention. Burke writes:

Defendant Prince and his companies create the media stir by their own actions. Indeed, their misconduct has led to a series of indictments, charging letters from the State Department, and criminal trials. Indeed, Defendant Prince seeks publicity that serves his own ends. He voluntarily participated in a Vanity Fair interview, pressing his view that anyone who criticizes his misconduct must have a "political agenda." Defendant Prince voluntarily cooperated with a book about his life, called Master of War. In the book, he voluntarily revealed, among other things, that he fathered a child out of wedlock and cheated on his wife who was dying of cancer.

On September 22, Burke filed a motion opposing the gag order and what she sees as Prince's attempt to "seal everything." In her motion, Burke reveals that she provided the US State Department with a transcript of the deposition for review of potentially classified material. A State Department contracting official wrote, "As contracting officer I do not require any redactions to the subject transcript of the Erk Prince deposition before it is made publicly available."

In arguing against a gag order, Burke writes that media coverage results in witnesses coming forward who will "be helpful in showing the jury that [her clients'] claims of widespread fraud and misconduct have merit." To support her argument, Burke cited Howard Lowry, whom she says contacted her after seeing media reports on Prince and Blackwater.

Lowry says he contacted Burke "because I believe there is a tremendous lack of moral and business ethics on behalf of the owner of the company and, I believe, companywide." He added, "Because of that, I feel that numerous families of individuals of Blackwater employees that have been killed on the job are not getting the true story."


Shhhhhh! JSOC is Hiring Interrogators and Covert Operatives for 'Special Access Programs'

The US military's most elite counter-terrorism force, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), prides itself on the secrecy of its operations. JSOC runs classified, compartmentalized task forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere around the world. It has operated secret prisons and detention sites globally and is the premiere organization tasked with killing or capturing individuals deemed by the president to be threats to the national security of the United States. It maintains a "hit list" of people targeted for kill or capture, including Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen living in Yemen. While there has been an uptick in media focus on the possibility of a widening CIA role in Yemen, JSOC has been operating in Yemen for years, where its operatives have carried out a variety of operations, including unilateral direct actions—in other words, they have bumped people off.

What has become abundantly clear is that the Obama administration has taken the Bush-era doctrine of the world as a battlefield and run with it. US special forces are now operating in seventy-five countries across the globe—up from sixty under Bush—and special operations sources say Obama is a major fan of the work of JSOC and other special operations forces.

Over the past few days, the ultra-secretive JSOC has publicly posted several jobs listings that open a small window into the type of work JSOC is performing under the Obama administration. Perhaps the most interesting revelations are those that confirm JSOC's ongoing interrogation program and its own counterintelligence operations in Washington, DC. The jobs also indicate that the individuals will be working on Special Access Programs (SAPs), which are black-budget black operations, which in some cases involve what are essentially assassinations. Former CIA operative Bob Baer said recently that SAPs allow "for the military, under Title 10…to assassinate. So, essentially, the military in what is called battlefield preparation can go into a country like Yemen we‘re not at war with, and assassinate leaders in al Qaeda or related groups. And this is Pandora‘s box. Once you open it, where else do you go?  I mean, do you it in Thailand? Do you do it in Morocco?"

Seeing highly sensitive job descriptions on public job sites has stunned some special operations forces veterans. "This kind of advertising is new under the Obama administration," says a US military source who has worked on SAPs and with JSOC. "Under the Bush administration, we certainly were not advertising at USAJobs for these types of positions. It blows my mind to see 'help wanted' ads for SAPs and special reconaisance programs."

A job listing posted on USAJobs August 12 for an "Intelligence Specialist (Operations)" requires a Top Secret security clearance and is based out of JSOC headquarters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It says that the job entails "planning, coordinating, and executing highly specialized, mission critical Interrogation, Exploitation, and Detainee related requirements for JCS-directed operations and contingency plans. Employee develops plans and strategies in support of complex tactical mission requirements. Coordinates and conducts mission essential training, as well as evaluating the execution of detention, interrogation, and exploitation operations. Responsible for all aspects of Interrogation, Exploitation and Detainee support during exercises, training, and operational deployments. Serves as a DOD certified interrogator, conducting interrogations and debriefings in support of military operations."

The job "Requires extensive travel (30% of the time), both CONUS [Continental United States] and OCONUS [Outside the Continental United States], on very short notice. Anthrax vaccination will be required. Frequent extended duty with long hours under high pressure with generally high-risk job responsibilities." It says that the job will be "performed under austere and potentially hazardous conditions during exercise and deployment operations. May be required to deploy into areas in which hostile action may occur." The job requires a "TOP SECRET/Single Scope Background Investigation (TS/SSBI), with access to Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) and selected Special Access Programs."

Another job listing, posted August 24 has the awesome title of "Future Operations Specialist." The job is described as a "staff action officer and advisor on plans, policies and operations related to sensitive activities (SA) and special access programs."

A third job listing, posted August 25, is for a JSOC counter-intelligence specialist in Washington, DC. The job entails responsibility "for highly specialized HUMINT, Area Intelligence and Signature Reduction (SR)requirements for compartmented projects/plans. Conducts specialized, multi-disciplined threat assessments." The individual will perform "CI duties as necessary and utilizes Counterintelligence badge and Credentials to validate status."

In June, sources working with US special operations forces told The Nation that the Obama administration's expansion of special forces activities globally has been authorized under a classified order dating back to the Bush administration. Originally signed in early 2004 by then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, it is known as the “AQN ExOrd," or Al Qaeda Network Execute Order. The AQN ExOrd was intended to cut through bureaucratic and legal processes, allowing US special forces to move into denied areas or countries beyond the official battle zones of Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The ExOrd spells out that we reserve the right to unilaterally act against Al Qaeda and its affiliates anywhere in the world that they operate," said one special forces source. The current mindset in the White House, he said, is that "the Pentagon is already empowered to do these things, so let JSOC off the leash. And that's what this White House has done." He added: "JSOC has been more empowered more under this administration than any other in recent history. No question."

The AQN ExOrd was drafted in 2003, primarily by the Special Operations Command and the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict and was promoted by neoconservative officials such as former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone as a justification for special forces operating covertly—and lethally—across the globe. Part of the order provides for what a source called "hot pursuit," similar to how some state police are permitted to cross borders into another state to pursue a suspect. "That's essentially what they have where they're chasing someone in Somalia and he moves over into Ethiopia or Eritrea, you can go after him," says the source.

"The Obama administration took the 2003 order and went above and beyond," said the special forces source. "The world is the battlefield, we've returned to that," he adds, referring to the Obama administration's strategy. "We were moving away from it for a little bit, but Cambone's 'preparing the battlefield' is still alive and well. It's embraced by this administration."

Perhaps the public ads for highly-sensitive positions are just part of Preparing the Battlefield 2.0.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich Seeks to Ban Assassinations of US Citizens

Lawyers for US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who has reportedly been targeted for assassination by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command, had to fight the US government to have the right to represent him. On Wednesday, following a lawsuit by the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Treasury Department issued a license to the pro-bono lawyers. Now the battle for due process begins. In a statement, al-Awlaki's new lawyers said the license would "allow us to pursue our litigation relating to the government’s asserted authority to engage in targeted killings of American civilians without due process."

Al-Awlaki, is originally from New Mexico and now lives in Yemen. He has been accused of providing inspiration for Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged "underwear bomber," and Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the alleged Fort Hood shooter.

Most lawmakers have been mute about the Obama administration's policy to target a US citizen for assassination. Representative Jane Harman, who serves on the Homeland Security Committee, said recently that Awlaki is "probably the person, the terrorist, who would be terrorist No. 1 in terms of threat against us." One of the few who has spoken against the policy is Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich. "The assassination policies vitiate the presumption of innocence and the government then becomes the investigator, policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury, executioner all in one," Kucinich told me in April. "That raises the greatest questions with respect to our constitution and our democratic way of life." He called the policy "extrajudicial."

Kucinich is putting his money where his mouth is. He just announced he has introduced legislation to "prohibit the extrajudicial killing of United States citizens." The bill states that "No one, including the President, may instruct a person acting within the scope of employment with the United States Government or an agent acting on behalf of the United States Government to engage in, or conspire to engage in, the extrajudicial killing of a United States citizen." It adds: "the authority granted to the President in the Authorization for Use of Military Force…following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, is not limitless."

The bill would require the president to submit to the Intelligence Committees a report "on the identity of each United States citizen that is on the list of the Joint Special Operations Command or the Central Intelligence Agency as `high value individuals' or `high value targets'."

Targeted killings are not a new Obama administration policy. Beginning three days after his swearing in, President Obama has authorized scores of lethal drone strikes, including against specific individuals, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, surpassing the Bush era numbers. The elite Joint Special Operations Command maintains a list of individuals, including US citizens, which it is authorized to assassinate. In January, Dana Priest reported in the Washington Post that the CIA had US citizens on an assassination list, but the Post later ran a correction stating that only JSOC had "a target list that includes several Americans." The policy of the CIA targeting al-Awlaki, a US citizen, for assassination, therefore, appeared to be a new development, at least in terms of public awareness of approved government assassinations.

Read the full bill H. R. 6010. At present the bill has only five co-sponsors.

Iraq Withdrawal? Obama and Clinton Expanding US Paramilitary Force in Iraq

UPDATE: In Iraq today, three private security contractors were killed in a rocket attack on Baghdad's Green Zone. All of them were employees of Triple Canopy, the security company hired by the Obama administration to take over much of Blackwater's work in Iraq. Another fifteen people were wounded in the attack. The dead included two Ugandans and a Peruvian. The attack highlights the inevitable consequences of an emerging Obama administration policy wherein more contractors are going to be deployed to Iraq and many of them will be so-called third country nationals like those killed in today's attack. The coming surge in contractors in Iraq is being done under the auspices of the State Department's diplomatic security division, which was massively expanded under the Bush administration paving the way for the Department's almost total reliance on private contractors for security in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

As a candidate for president, Senator Hillary Clinton vowed to ban the use of private security contractors, which she referred to as mercenaries. "These private security contractors have been reckless and have compromised our mission in Iraq," Clinton said in February 2008. "The time to show these contractors the door is long past due." Clinton was one of only two senators to sponsor legislation to ban these companies. Fast forward to the present and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is presiding over what is shaping up to be a radical expansion of a private, US-funded paramilitary force that will operate in Iraq for the foreseeable future--the very type of force Clinton once claimed she opposed.

The State Department is asking Congress to approve funds to more than double the number of private security contractors in Iraq with a State Department official testifying in June at a hearing of the Wartime Contracting Commission that the Department wants "between 6,000 and 7,000 security contractors." The Department also has asked the Pentagon for twenty-four Blackhawk helicopters, fifty Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected (MRAP) vehicles and other military equipment. "After the departure of U.S. Forces [from Iraq], we will continue to have a critical need for logistical and life support of a magnitude and scale of complexity that is unprecedented in the history of the Department of State," wrote Patrick Kennedy, under secretary of state for management, in an April letter to the Pentagon. "And to keep our people secure, Diplomatic Security requires certain items of equipment that are only available from the military."

What is unfolding is the face of President Obama's scaled-down, rebranded mini-occupation of Iraq. Under the terms of the Status of Forces agreement, all US forces are supposed to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Using private forces is a backdoor way of continuing a substantial US presence under the cover of "diplomatic security." The kind of paramilitary force that Obama and Clinton are trying to build in Iraq is, in large part, a byproduct of the monstrous colonial fortress the United States calls its embassy in Baghdad and other facilities the US will maintain throughout Iraq after the "withdrawal." The State Department plans to operate five "Enduring Presence Posts" at current US military bases in Basrah, Diyala, Erbil, Kirkuk and Ninewa. The State Department has indicated that more sites may be created in the future, which would increase the demand for private forces. The US embassy in Baghdad is the size of Vatican City, comprised of twenty-one buildings on a 104-acres of land on the Tigris River.

In making their case to Congress and the Defense Department for the expansion of a private paramilitary force in Iraq, State Department officials have developed what they call a "lost functionality" list of fourteen security-related tasks that the military currently perform in Iraq that would become the responsibility of the State Department as US forces draw down. Among these are: recovering killed and wounded personnel, downed aircraft or damaged vehicles, convoy security and threat intelligence. The department also foresees a need to run a tactical operations center that would dispatch of armed response teams. Ambassador Kennedy said that without military equipment and an expansion of personnel, "the security of [State] personnel in Iraq will be degraded significantly and we can expect increased casualties."

For years, companies operating in the private security/defense logistics industry have predicted an increased reliance on contractors in Iraq that would accompany a draw-down of official US forces. What is clear from the current State Department plan for Iraq is that the United States is going to have armed forces in the country for the foreseeable future. The only question is, How many will be there as uniformed soldiers and how many will be private paramilitaries?

Corporate Media Discover Private Spies. In Other News, No WMD in Iraq

Stop the presses and call the government spokespeople back from Martha's Vineyard.
The corporate media have discovered that the United States is radically outsourcing national security and sensitive intelligence operations. Cable news channels breathlessly report on the "groundbreaking," "exclusive" Washington Post series, Top Secret America, a two-year investigation by Dana Priest and William Arkin. No doubt there is some important stuff in this series. Both Arkin and Priest have done outstanding work for many years on sensitive, life-or-death subjects. And that is one of the main reasons why this series has, thus far, been incredibly disappointing. Its greatest accomplishment is forcing a discussion onto corporate TV years after it would have had an actual impact.

The misplaced hype surrounding the Post series speaks volumes to the ahistorical nature of US media culture. Next week, if the New York Times published a story on how there were no WMDs in Iraq, there would no doubt be cable news shows that would act like it was an earth-moving revelation delivered by Moses on the stone tablet of exclusive, groundbreaking journalism.

The Post does a fine job of exploring the scope of the privatization and providing some new or updated statistics. It also produces a few zingers from senior officials like Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "This is a terrible confession," Gates said in Tuesday's installment. "I can't get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense." It was also hilarious to read CIA director Leon Panetta—who just gave Blackwater a brand new $100 million global CIA contract—act like he is anything other than a contractor addict. "For too long, we've depended on contractors to do the operational work that ought to be done" by CIA employees, Panetta told the Post. But replacing them "doesn't happen overnight. When you've been dependent on contractors for so long, you have to build that expertise over time." Panetta told the Post he was concerned about contracting with corporations, whose responsibility "is to their shareholders, and that does present an inherent conflict." I wonder if the Blackwater guys working for Panetta can contain their laughter reading those statements. I imagine them taping a post-it note that says "Kick me" on Panetta's back and then chuckling about it with the Lockheed contractors.

What is perhaps most telling about the Post series is how little detail is provided on the most sensitive operations performed by contractors: assassinations, torture, rendition and operational planning.

In reality, there is little in the Post series that, in one way or another, has not already been documented by independent journalist Tim Shorrock, author of the (actually) groundbreaking book, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. With the exception of some details and a lot of color, much of what I have read in the Post's series thus far I had already read in Shorrock's book and his previous reporting for Salon, Mother Jones and The Nation. Shorrock was the reporter who first revealed the extent of the radical privatization of intel operations. In 2007, Shorrock obtained and published a document from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence showing that 70 percent of the US intelligence budget was spent on private contractors. Shorrock was way out in front of this story and, frankly, corporate media ignored it. When I was working on my book on Blackwater, which first came out in 2007, Shorrock provided me with some crucial insights into the world of privatized intelligence. Shorrock remains a valued colleague and source and the Post is just wrong to not credit him for the work he has done on this story. Everyone should read Shorrock's latest story which includes an exclusive photo tour through the private intelligence community.

The Post and its reporters, Shorrock told me, "are doing their best to obfuscate what contractors really do for US intelligence. They're eight years behind and still haven't caught up. Basically their stories are throwing big numbers at readers—such as the fact that of 854,000 people with top security clearances, 265,000 are contractors. But that's work that can be done by interns; there's virtually nothing in their series about the broader picture—like what it means to have private for-profit companies operating at the highest levels of our national security."

Much of the series reads like a description of the mundane work of analysts and IT people with the types of stats Shorrock mentioned thrown in. Of course, it is meant to feel insider-ish to read the description of the General Dynamics contractor tracking a white pick-up truck in Afghanistan suspected of being  "part of a network making roadside bombs" and with a few clicks of the mouse revealing the history of the vehicle, the address and identity of the driver and a list of visitors to his house. But what about the ultra-sensitive work contractors do for the NSA or the highly secretive National Reconnaissance Office? "It's very significant that, in their database, [the Post] eliminated information about what key contractors do for the agencies such as NSA," says Shorrock. "There's tons of data about these companies in their database, but not what they actually do." (People wanting more information on contractors doing this work, such as Booz-Allen, SAIC, Northrop Grumman and others should check out the contractor database Shorrock developed with CorpWatch last year.)

Also, what about the contractors who have tortured prisoners, flown rendition flights and participated in lethal "direct actions" ie assassination operations?

According to the July 20 article in the Post's series: "Private contractors working for the CIA have recruited spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan and protected CIA directors visiting world capitals. Contractors have helped snatch a suspected extremist off the streets of Italy, interrogated detainees once held at secret prisons abroad and watched over defectors holed up in the Washington suburbs. At Langley headquarters, they analyze terrorist networks. At the agency's training facility in Virginia, they are helping mold a new generation of American spies.… Contractors kill enemy fighters. They spy on foreign governments and eavesdrop on terrorist networks. They help craft war plans. They gather information on local factions in war zones."

Wow, an engaged reader might think after reading that, this will be fascinating. Now we are getting somewhere. But instead of revealing new details on these types of operations and naming names and employers and specific incidents, none of that is to be found. The discussion of torture and extrajudicial killings committed by private contractors is relegated to a whitewashing by the Post. "Contractor misdeeds in Iraq and Afghanistan have hurt U.S. credibility in those countries as well as in the Middle East," Priest and Arkin write. "Abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, some of it done by contractors, helped ignite a call for vengeance against the United States that continues today. Security guards working for Blackwater added fuel to the five-year violent chaos in Iraq and became the symbol of an America run amok." [Emphases added.]

I'm sorry, Blackwater "added fuel" to "chaos?" "America run amok?" These are very strange descriptions of the take-away message from the massacre of seventeen innocent Iraqi civilians, the alleged murder of a bodyguard to the Iraqi vice president and night-hunting Iraqis as "payback" for 9/11. Not to mention the allegations of young prostitutes performing oral sex for a dollar, guns smuggled on private planes in dog food bags, hiding weapons from ATF agents and on and on. But more important, where in the Post series is the examination of the CIA assassination program that relied on Blackwater and other private contractors? Where is the investigation of Erik Prince's hit teams that operated in Germany and elsewhere? What about the ongoing work of contractors in the drone bombing program? What about Blackwater contractors calling in air-strikes in Afghanistan or operating covertly in Pakistan?

Also, since when is torturing prisoners a "misdeed?" According to the Post, torture at Abu Ghraib "helped to ignite a call for vengeance against the United States." This type of vapid description of the consequences of heinous crimes committed by America and its proxies has become like daily bread in corporate media outlets. The Post's focus on the calls for vengeance rather than the incredible uphill quest for justice in the US courts by the victims of this torture is telling. As is the total omission of the other torture facilities employed by the United States—some of which were revealed first by Dana Priest and the Washington Post.

Marcy Wheeler--another unfamous journalist who rarely gets credit from the corporate all-stars when she scoops them—described this aspect of the Post story on her EmptyWheel blog: "Abuse of prisoners happened. But apparently, only at Abu Ghraib, not at Bagram, not at Gitmo, not at firebases where detainees died. And the names of those contractors? Their role in the abuse? The WaPo stops short of telling you, for example, that a CACI interrogator was the one instructing the grunts at Abu Ghraib to abuse detainees. The WaPo also doesn’t tell you the CACI contractors never paid any price for doing so. The WaPo doesn’t mention that DOD believed they had no way of holding  contractors accountable for such things (though the case of David Passaro, in which a detainee died, of course proved that contractors could be prosecuted)."

Perhaps the Post plans to publish a story called "Top Top Super Duper Triple-Decker Secret America" where the paper actually delves deep into the outsourcing of assassinations, torture, rendition, interrogation and "find fix and finish" operations. That would truly be ground-breaking. Until then, buy Tim Shorrock's book and read Marcy Wheeler.

Former Top CIA Spy: How US Intelligence Became Big Business

Few who have seen the dramatic privatization of US intelligence operations from the inside ever speak about the role private contractors play in covert operations--certainly not in public. In late June, however, the CIA's former top counterterrorism official, Robert Grenier, participated in a rare public discussion on issues ranging from the incredible extent to which the US has relied on contractors to fill sensitive national security positions; to battlefield contractors in Afghanistan; to allegations of contractor involvement in "direct action" (lethal) operations, as well as commenting on Blackwater owner Erik Prince's reported involvement in a secret CIA assassination program. The former spy also criticized what he called attempts by the US military to "overstep their bounds" by conducting intelligence operations that traditionally have fallen under the purview of the CIA.

Grenier was undoubtedly one of the US intelligence community's heavy hitters in the aftermath of 9/11. He was CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan when the 9/11 attacks took place and coordinated the initial incursions by CIA personnel and contractors in the first year of the US invasion of Afghanistan. After a stint in what Grenier jokingly called "our excellent adventure in Iraq," where, as chief of the Iraq Issues Group, he planned covert US actions in the lead up to and ultimate invasion of the country, Grenier was named as director of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center (CTC), the unit coordinating the tip of the spear of the CIA's covert activities. In 2006, Grenier left the CIA, reportedly over disagreements with then-CIA director Porter Goss, including the issue of treatment of detainees and prisoners. After leaving the agency, Grenier worked at Kroll Inc., a security consulting firm, and is currently chairman of ERG Partners, a small consulting company.

Grenier and I participated in a frank discussion, along with Professor Katerie Carmola, author of Private Security Contractors and New Wars: Risk, Law, and Ethics, at the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, where I had a chance to publicly ask Grenier some specific questions.

Grenier estimated that "many more than half" of the personnel who worked under him at the CIA's counterterrorism center were private contractors. Contractors "were coming in and they were all over the place," Grenier said of his time at CTC. "Often I would go down and talk to people in my work force and I would say, 'Hey, that was a great job and I saw what you did last night, I saw that cable that you turned up, thank you very much.' And I'd be startled when they would give me a business card."

It is difficult to access detailed information about the extent to which US intelligence activities are privatized, primarily because the budgets of the eighteen intelligence agencies operated by the United States are mostly classified. In 2007, journalist Tim Shorrock, who wrote the definitive book on the privatization of intelligence, Spies for Hire, obtained and published an unclassified document from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence showing that 70 percent of the US intelligence budget was spent on private contractors. No documents on these classified budgets have been made public since.

Grenier largely defended the use of contractors, primarily because he said he believes that the government, in a time of war, needs to be able to hire skilled, specialized personnel capable of securing the necessary security clearances. "It's far easier to go through the process to get a contractor if time is an issue than it would be to bring somebody on as a regular employee," Grenier said. He said that when he was running CIA operations in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11, he was working with several of his predecessors who had left the CIA, but returned, with their experience and clearances, as independent contractors. Grenier cited another "very prosaic" reason for the reliance on contractors: the federal budgeting process.

Grenier called the system of allocating funds to US agencies the "most illogical process ever devised by the mind of man." He described Congressional funding restrictions that provided huge sums of money to the CIA post-9/11 to purchase goods and services, but not to hire new employees. Instead, he said, Congress provided one year supplemental funding packages to the CIA for "non-personal services." That funding, Grenier asserted, "you can spend for anything."

"You can buy armored vehicles, you can buy drones, or you can buy contractors. Contractors are not considered persons in the context of the federal budgeting process," Genier added. The CIA, therefore, got creative. "So, here was the Congress saying, 'What can we do for you, what can we give you?' Money was not the object—they'd give us anything we asked for and what we got was non-personal services dollars on a supplemental basis. And so, what did we have to do? We went out and bought contractors."

In the early stages of the US war in Afghanistan, Grenier said, many people were hired as individual independent contractors. Then, he says, small companies began popping up that specialized in providing the government and other entities with seasoned veterans of US special forces and intelligence agencies for hire. Within months, companies like Blackwater jumped head first into the rent-a-soldier industry. These companies offered what they called "turnkey solutions" in the war zone.

"Well, they figured out that they could extort—I should say that they could command—more money form the federal government if they somehow banded together," says Grenier, who described the rise of what he called "body shops" providing personnel. "It was like a form of unionization. They got together and they formed these little companies and they could engage in what we might call collective bargaining and thereby raise their salaries."

Shorrock, who analyzes government contracts for an AFL-CIO union, found Grenier's description interesting. "CIA and NSA employees are banned by statute from engaging in collective bargaining. But forming a company might be one way a group of operatives could get a better deal from the CIA on wages, health benefits or insurance," said Shorrock. "That shouldn't be confused with union rights, though."

While Grenier provided a utilitarian rationale for the CIA using contractors, he veered away from discussing the political expediency private forces offer the CIA by providing unattributable forces specializing in plausible deniability.

Several times during our discussion, I asked Grenier about the use of contractors in lethal "direct action" operations, some of which have been characterized as part of a secret CIA assassination program. I specifically asked him about the report in January in Vanity Fair that Blackwater owner Erik Prince had trained a CIA team whose ultimate job would be to "find, fix and finish" suspected terrorists across the globe. Prince's men, according to the article, never "finished" a suspect, but they did do everything but pull the trigger in several countries, including in Germany. Prince claims to have paid for some operations "out of my own pocket.”

Many of the activities alleged to have been carried out by Prince and Blackwater occured while Grenier was director of CTC.

Grenier was visibly uncomfortable discussing the issue of Blackwater and "direct action," saying, "Although some of these things have been revealed and some of what has been revealed is perhaps true and some of it is perhaps untrue and some of it is perhaps exaggerated or misrepresented, but all of it is still classified and so it's difficult for me to speak to it directly to the extent that I know about it." He added: "There were things that frankly were new to me in what I read in that article."

Grenier rejected the notion that Blackwater would have been specifically hired by the CIA for assassination operations, offering a denial that carefully relied on the CIA's contracting process.  "CIA would not be soliciting or putting out an RFP [a Request for Proposal] to solicit bids for a company, perhaps for the lowest bidder, to come out and perform services like [direct lethal action]."

While there is little chance that there is a US government contract with Blackwater floating around showing the CIA hired Blackwater to kill people, this type of contracting inherently creates gray areas that ultimately benefit the secrecy of the operations. There is no doubt that Blackwater forces have killed plenty of people in Iraq and Afghanistan and that not all of these "kills" have been defensive security operations.

Without confirming details of Blackwater's involvement in any lethal direct action operations, Grenier did say that to the extent that Prince and his men were potentially involved, they likely were not fully aware of the role they were playing in broader CIA operations. "By [Prince's] own admission those actions have never been carried out," Grenier said. "And certainly, if I had anything to do with it, they would not be carried out by private individuals." He then added: "A Navy SEAL in a buzz cut is probably not the individual that I would put on the street in Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon to do surveillance on a potential target."

What Grenier did describe, in a careful and circumspect way, is a major reason why a company like Blackwater would be hired for involvement in such operations: the combination of experienced personnel and the networks of foreign nationals they cultivated over years of government intelligence work. At the time Grenier was running CTC, Blackwater was flush with well-connected CIA veterans who had vast networks of assets and contacts across the globe. In addition to Cofer Black, Prince counted among his most valued employees Enrique "Ric" Prado, a former CIA paramilitary officer who served as chief of operations for the CTC and Robert Richer, former deputy director of operations at the CIA. All of these men were deeply connected in a wide array of countries where the US was operating under the banner of "the war on terror."

"If, let us say, that one wanted to find individuals, probably foreign nationals who can go out and mount an effective surveillance against a particular target for whatever purpose—intelligence collection or whatever—then you are going to be looking for the right group of individuals who provide you with the right combination of skills that you are seeking," said Grenier.  "I just wanted the right people with the right skills doing the job. Depending on the operation and what you want to get done, there really is no standard template. Every time is the first time."

According to Vanity Fair, while Grenier was at CTC, "[Erik] Prince was developing unconventional means of penetrating 'hard target' countries—where the C.I.A. has great difficulty working either because there are no stations from which to operate or because local intelligence services have the wherewithal to frustrate the agency’s designs."

Grenier described the value of access to such networks and connections held by some contractors: "It may well be that you're dealing with an individual and let's just say for the sake of discussion that he's a Blackwater employee and perhaps that individual knows some other individual—perhaps foreigners with whom he or she has dealt in the past--that you want to gain access to and bring in on the team. And maybe you want them to know what they're supposed to be doing and maybe you don't.  Maybe you're going to have them only partially aware of what they're doing and not aware of what the ultimate purpose for it."

I pressed Grenier on why the CIA might use a company like Blackwater at any stage of a lethal operation instead of using US military special forces teams like those from the Joint Special Operations Command. Grenier pointed to the complicated logistics of preparing such operations. "It's not just a matter of sending in a direct action team, a JSOC squad to go and hit somebody. There's a tremendous amount of preparation, if you will, that has to be done beforehand--most of it having to do with intelligence collection."

As for Erik Prince's claims about his work with covert CIA teams, Grenier said, "The characterization that Erik Prince has provided—to the extent that he fully understood himself what he was saying—I think is easily subject to misinterpretation. I don't know what was in his mind when he spoke."


Overall, Grenier was generally supportive of the use of private contractors, though he did offer some criticisms. He expressed concerned about the "revolving door" between government and the private sector, saying he endorsed moves to ban CIA personnel from returning as contractors less than a year after leaving the agency before official retirement. "Many of these relationships are far too cozy, far too clubby and there are serious risks associated with the revolving door," he said.

He also said he believes that contractors who work with US intelligence agencies should not subsequently or concurrently working with foreign governments. "I can assure you that if the CIA were employing a contractor who had, thereby, access to very sensitive information, [the CIA] would take a very dim view of that same individual working for that company under a different contract, say, for the Israelis or for some other foreign government," said Grenier.

I asked Grenier about the US military classifying operations that might traditionally be considered intelligence operations, such as US special forces activities in countries like Yemen or Somalia, as "preparing the battlefield," making them a military rather than an intelligence operation. Some critics have suggested that such classification is an attempt to avoid Congressional oversight of certain covert operations. "That's a very interesting dodge," Grenier said. "It has not kept the Department of Defense from trying, at least in my view and the view of others in the intelligence community, to at least to some degree overstep their bounds." Grenier also said Congress "is complicit in it," saying, "One of the things that keeps the military from having to report its intelligence-related activities to the relevant intelligence committees is the very jealous armed services committees who don't want to have their military reporting to these other committees."

The Obama administration has continued the US policy of overwhelming reliance on private contractors at every level of the US national security apparatus and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the administration has dramatically increased the number of contractors from Bush-era levels. In Iraq, while the overall US presence is decreasing, the percentage of  contractors within the total US force continues to rise. But it is not just on the battlefield. According to a recent Congressional investigation, some 69 percent of all Department of Defense personnel are private contractors. The CIA's recent $100 million contract with Blackwater for "security" services globally is a clear sign that this trend continues unabated at the agency under Leon Panetta.

The Commission on Wartime Contracting recently examined the issue of the use of contractors in sensitive operations at a hearing called, "Are Private Security Contractors Performing Inherently Governmental Functions?" One of the experts who testified, Dr. Allison Stanger, professor and director of the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs at Middlebury College, said that the government use of contractors has become a necessity, rather than a choice, but she painted a sober picture of the implications of the United States using such forces. It "blurs the line between the legitimate and illegitimate use of force, which is just what our enemies want. Al Qaeda's operatives have no country and are private actors waging war on the United States. Terrorists may receive funding from states, but they are by definition non-state actors," Stanger said. "If the United States can legitimately rely on non-state actors wielding weapons to protect our interests, why can't Al Qaeda or the Taliban, especially when contractor misdeeds appear to go completely unpunished?"

Barry Eisler vs. Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn and Brad Thor

At some of the darkest moments in history, the truth has been, at times, best chronicled not by journalists but by fiction writers. This is painfully true in these days of embedded journalists and caviar correspondents who serve as bodyguards for the powerful. Barry Eisler is this generation's tech-savvy new media incarnation of Graham Greene. The former-covert-CIA-operative-turned-novelist is fast emerging as one of the most important fiction writers in the military/covert ops/political thriller genre dominated by right-wing, prowar authors like Tom Clancy, Brad Thor and Vince Flynn. Eisler is a political progressive who, in a different life, personally worked on the dark side and knows his stuff.

His new novel, Inside Out, hits bookstores today. I am only half-way through the book and plan to review it when I finish, but I can say with no hesitation that people should pick it up. The plot centers around Ben Treven, a black ops soldier, who finds himself locked up in a Manila prison after a bar fight. His former commander from the Intelligence Support Activity presents him with a mission in return for release: find and eliminate Daniel Larison, a rogue operator from Ben's unit who has stolen ninety-two torture tapes from the CIA and is using them to blackmail the US government. The fast-paced story dives head-first into the current global battlefield, replete with ghost detainees, torture, Blackwater-type mercenaries and corporatism. You can pick up the book in pretty much any bookstore (I saw it this morning at Penn Station) or you can order the book through Barry Eisler's website.

Worth noting is the fact that Eisler has racked up an impressive roster of endorsements from an amazing mixture of former military and CIA figures as well as leading dissidents:

"Inside Out is more than just an addictive, non-stop thriller. It is a microscope turned on the official policies of torture, extraordinary rendition, and the systematic ghosting of detainees. Through the dialogue of his engaging characters, Eisler insightfully conveys the incredible damage these policies caused our nation and the danger they pose to democracy and freedom." 
—Matthew Alexander, author of How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq

"A white knuckle roller-coaster ride through the dark side, a truth so horrifying it can only be told in fiction. Eisler is a rarity, the ex-spook who turns himself into a great thriller writer." 
—Robert Baer, author of See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism

"Inside Out achieves what only the best works of fiction can: it imparts profoundly insightful commentary on the most pressing political controversies of the day within a riveting dramatic plot. Eisler's unique talent is weaving together exciting story-telling with provocative headline-based truths, and he reaches all new heights with his latest novel."
—Glenn Greenwald, Salon, author of Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics

"Eisler turns on its head the old saw that to undersand all is to forgive all. His tight plotting and believable characters show us unforgivingly how counter-terrorism turns evil and counter-productive." —Juan Cole, President, Global Americana Institute, author of Engaging the Muslim World

"Inside Out plumbs, with absolute credibility, the darkest recesses of our recent public life, pulling back the curtain on the grim world of secrets—from extraordinary rendition to torture to extra-judicial killing—that looms behind our recent foreign policy. Which makes it not only compelling but, alas, essential reading." 
—Mark Danner, author of Torture and Truth and Stripping Bare the Body

"Eisler's novels have always provided readers with fascinating glimpses of the arcane nature of intelligence operations and cleverly drawn composites of the personalities populating that world. In his new work, Inside Out, he goes one step further to accurately capture the zeitgeist of the past decade's dark war against terrorism, offering the reader a very real—and very compelling—rendering of the juxtaposition of personal interests, confused ethics, and misguided patriotism that led the country off a moral cliff. Not long ago, few would have accepted the possibility that the U.S. Government would sanction a program of coercive interrogation practices; now, that reality provides the factual background for an exceptionally well-crafted work of fiction." —Col. Steven Kleinman, Intelligence Officer and National Security Strategist


Blackwater's New Sugar Daddy: The Obama Administration

Blackwater has spent heavily on Democratic lobbyists in 2010 and clearly it has paid off. Despite the investigations, the indictments, the trail of dead bodies, George W Bush's favorite mercenary company is thriving under the Obama Administration. After its original sugar daddy left town, Blackwater has happily remarried. Over the past two weeks, the Administration has awarded nearly a quarter billion dollars in new US government contracts to Blackwater to work for the State Department and CIA in Afghanistan and other hot zones globally.

In an interview Sunday on ABC's "This Week," CIA Director Leon Panetta made it clear that the Agency is dependent upon private security companies to operate globally. But, not just any private security companies. Specifically, Panetta said, the CIA needs Blackwater.

"I have to tell you that in the war zone, we continue to have needs for security. You've got a lot of forward bases. We've got a lot of attacks on some of these bases. We've got to have security. Unfortunately, there are a few companies that provide that kind of security," Panetta told Jake Tapper. "So we bid out some of those contracts. [Blackwater] provided a bid that was underbid everyone else by about $26 million. And a panel that we had said that they can do the job, that they have shaped up their act. So there really was not much choice but to accept that contract." While Tapper specifically asked Panetta about Blackwater's work in Afghanistan, the CIA contract is not limited to Afghanistan--it is a global contract.

PolitiFact didn't review the accuracy of Panetta's statements about Blackwater (which, these days, tries to pass itself off under the new names Xe Services and the US Training Center), but it should have. Blackwater is still Blackwater. Yes, the company changed its name and yes they hired some new figureheads and yes Erik Prince says he is selling the company and leaving the government services business. But let's be clear: this is a company that remains under serious investigation by multiple US agencies and Congress for a range of alleged crimes and violations. Among these are weapons charges, murder, manslaughter, conspiracy, making false statements and using shell companies to win contracts that may not have been awarded to Blackwater if the company's true identity was clear. Most recently, McClatchy revealed that "the U.S. government and the private military contractor are negotiating a multimillion-dollar fine to settle allegations that Blackwater violated U.S. export control regulations in Sudan, Iraq and elsewhere."

In April, five of Prince's top deputies were hit with a fifteen-count indictment by a federal grand jury on conspiracy, weapons and obstruction of justice charges. Among those indicted were Prince's longtime number-two man, former Blackwater president Gary Jackson, former vice presidents William Matthews and Ana Bundy and Prince's former legal counsel Andrew Howell. Meanwhile, US prosecutors are still pursuing the Blackwater operatives alleged to be responsible for the single greatest massacre of Iraqi civilians by a private US force, the infamous Nisour Square massacre. Earlier this year, Senator Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee formally called on the Justice Department and Defense Department to investigate what he called "the reckless use of weapons by Blackwater personnel and a failure by the company to adequately supervise its personnel" in Afghanistan.

When Panetta says a panel determined Blackwater had "shaped up their act," what exactly does he mean? I would love to see the findings of that CIA panel and how "shaped up" is defined. Moreover, Panetta speaks as though his hands are simply tied up and that if Blackwater comes in with a lower bid than any other company, there's nothing he can do. That is simply ridiculous. "It's just outrageous," Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who, as chair of the House Intelligence subcommittee on investigations and oversight is leading classified investigations of Blackwater, told me last week. "What does Blackwater have to do to be determined an illegitimate player? While some of Blackwater's personnel do good work, its employees have proven to be untrustworthy with weapons in combat zones. Whether they are at the center of a mission or are doing static security, we should not be using Blackwater employees. The CIA should not be doing business with this company no matter how many name changes it undergoes."

At a minimum, part of the calculus that should be employed when reviewing Blackwater's fitness to work for the US government is how the company's history of killing civilians and engaging in serious misconduct--all of which has been well documented in Afghanistan and elsewhere--will impact US operations. "I'm just mystified why any branch of the government would decide to hire Blackwater, such a repeat offender," Schakowsky said on "This Week." "We're talking about murder, a company with a horrible reputation, that really jeopardizes our mission in so many different ways." The message that using this firm sends to Muslim countries in particular is that the US has no problem using a company owned by an avowed Christian supremacist whose own employee said in a sworn declaration "views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe," adding that Prince's companies "encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life."

Panetta said that the CIA had reviewed Blackwater's work for the Agency "to ensure that first and foremost, that we have no contract in which they are engaged in any CIA operations," adding, "We're doing our own operations. That's important, that we not contract that out to anybody." This is simply a blatantly misleading statement. I have talked with many US military and Blackwater sources who have told me point-blank that while Blackwater technically is hired for "security," they regularly are pulled into operations. The Blackwater guys are not dime store rent-a-cops. Many of them are former Navy SEALs or other US special forces veterans--precisely the type of men recruited by the CIA's paramilitary division for operations. The idea that the Blackwater guys are just standing around Afghanistan or any other war zone (declared or not) smoking cigarettes and admiring their tattoos while their colleagues who happen to officially work for the CIA chase the bad guys is simply not true. Blackwater forces have been a major part of sensitive US operations almost from the moment the US went into Afghanistan in 2001.

As we know, Blackwater and Prince individually trained and ran private CIA assassination teams at various points since 9-11. Panetta told Congress he put an end to those teams. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. But saying that Blackwater is just doing security while on CIA contract is a dubious claim. Take the example of the deadly suicide bombing at the CIA outpost at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost Afghanistan last December 30. Top CIA officials in the country were meeting with Humam Khalil Muhammed Abu Mulal al-Balawi, who claimed to have recently met with Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri. It was arguably considered one of the most important intelligence contacts made since 9-11 for the Agency. When al-Balawi blew himself up, two Blackwater operatives were killed. The point is that this company's operatives are involved with the most sensitive, secret US missions.

What we are seeing clearly is the Obama administration not only using Blackwater in sensitive operations globally, but actively defending the company's continued existence as a government contractor in good standing. Just look at the report about Blackwater and Sudan. According to McClatchy's investigation, two former senior U.S. officials said Blackwater "at one point proposed a broad defense package [for Southern Sudan's Christian forces] that would have required the south to pledge as much as half its mineral wealth to pay for Blackwater's services." According to McClatchy, "Had the company been indicted, it could have been suspended from doing business with the U.S. government, and a conviction could have brought debarment from all government contracts, including providing guard services for the CIA and State Department in war zones." Instead of indicting the company, the Justice Department protected Blackwater and opted for a settlement rather than a criminal prosecution thus ensuring the company could continute to work for the US government.

No one is paying any attention to what should be a major part of the story of Blackwater's thriving second marriage to the current Administration: the money trail. Blackwater has spent heavily this year on lobbyists—particularly Democratic ones. In the first quarter of 2010, the company spent more than $500,000 for the services of Stuart Eizenstat, a well-connected Democratic lobbyist who served in the Clinton and Carter administrations. Eizenstat heads the international practice for the powerhouse law and lobbying firm Covington and Burling.

Put that together with two other important facts about Blackwater and you get a clear picture of why this company continues to win contracts. First, Blackwater does have the market pretty well cornered on providing large numbers of seasoned special forces veterans, security clearance in-hand, ready for rapid deployment. This results from a dramatic over reliance on using private companies--specifically Blackwater-- for security that has expanded rapidly over the past decade. The US government has not moved to create its own force that could provide these services despite the need for them created by US foreign policy. Second, Blackwater has been involved with so many sensitive operations for a decade and knows where the bodies are buried and who buried them. Those are not the kind of people you simply cut loose without fear of consequences.

David Brooks, King of Kvetching

New York Times columnist David Brooks managed to get away from the GOP Senators trying to place their hands on his inner thigh at dinner long enough to pen a column shaming a real journalist for having the audacity to break the etiquette rules that govern the precious relationship between elite media personalities and those in power. His target this time is freelance journalist Michael Hastings, whose profile in Rolling Stone of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his inner circle brought down McChrystal almost instantly.

What offended Brooks was that Hastings had the audacity to report--for public consumption (gasp!)--the "kvetching" that powerful figures like McChrystal apparently engage in with their friends in the corporate media. "The most interesting part of my job is that I get to observe powerful people at close quarters," Brooks writes. "The system is basically set up to maximize kvetching."

Hastings, who clearly skipped out on one too many classes at the Joe Klein/David Brooks/Peggy Noonan School for Caviar Correspondents, committed the mortal sin of making "the kvetching the center of his magazine profile." Brooks declares: "By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him."

That Hastings exposed what McChrystal and his boys really think of Obama and civilian leaders or that he uncovered disturbing views held by McChrystal regarding loss of life in Afghanistan--in other words, information that the public and civilian leaders probably should have--goes unmentioned by Brooks. What Hastings did was to act too much like a journalist and not enough like an ass-kissing kvetcher. Professor Brooks breaks it down like this for young Hastings: "Military people are especially prone to these sorts of outbursts. In public, they pay lavish deference to civilian masters who issue orders from the comfort of home. Among themselves, they blow off steam, sometimes in the crudest possible terms. Those of us in the press corps have to figure out how to treat this torrent of private kvetching."

So much of what is wrong with journalism today can be gleaned from a simple RSS subscription to David Brooks's columns. In his world, those who have access to the powerful guard their darkest secrets--not their affairs or infidelities or alcohol problems, but the kinds of views McChrystal and his aides expressed in Hastings' article, the kind of conduct they condone and order in US wars. In a responsible society, one with a vibrant and independent press, the job of journalists should be to hold those in power accountable. Part of the job of journalists is to do precisely what Hastings did--catch powerful figures in their true element, not simply portray their crafted public personas and loyally transcribe their prepared public statements. "McChrystal, like everyone else, kvetched," Brooks writes. "And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter."

To Brooks, Hastings's conduct was a part of the decay of the private, sacred relationship between the press and the powerful. During World War II, Brooks writes, "Reporters suppressed private information."

Then, during Vietnam, all hell broke loose, according to Brooks: "[A]n ethos of exposure swept the culture. The assumption among many journalists was that the establishment may seem upstanding, but there is a secret corruption deep down. It became the task of journalism to expose the underbelly of public life, to hunt for impurity, assuming that the dark hidden lives of public officials were more important than the official performances."

Fast forward to today. Oh, don't get Lord Brooks started on today. "Now you have outlets, shows and Web sites whose only real interest is the kvetching and inside baseball," Brooks complains. "In other words, over the course of 50 years, what had once been considered the least important part of government became the most important."

The irony of what Brooks is saying is that it is he who is the ultimate inside baseball junkie, the king of kvetching with the powerful. He is the gatekeeper for the stupid, undeserving public who wouldn't be able to handle the truth if they knew it. In our infotainment society where the kids from Jersey Shore are "reality" and the deaths of innocent Afghans and Iraqis are, at best, statistics, David Brooks fits in perfectly.

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