Editor’s Note: The following article, which appeared in the December 21, 2009, print issue of The Nation, is an abbreviated version of the same article that can be read in full, with additional responses from the US government, here.
At a covert forward operating base run by the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, members of an elite division of Blackwater are at the center of a secret program in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, “snatch and grabs” of high-value targets and other sensitive actions inside and outside Pakistan, an investigation by The Nation has found. The Blackwater operatives also assist in gathering intelligence and help direct a US military drone bombing campaign that runs parallel to the well-documented CIA predator strikes, according to a well-placed source within the US military intelligence apparatus.
The source, who has worked on covert US military programs for years, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has direct knowledge of the program. He spoke to The Nation on condition of anonymity because the program is classified. The source said that the program is so “compartmentalized” that senior figures within the Obama administration and the US military chain of command may not be aware of its existence.
The White House did not return calls or e-mail messages seeking comment for this story. Capt. John Kirby, the spokesman for Adm. Michael Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Nation, “We do not discuss current operations one way or the other, regardless of their nature.” A defense official, speaking on background, specifically denied that Blackwater performs work on drone strikes or intelligence for JSOC in Pakistan. “We don’t have any contracts to do that work for us. We don’t contract that kind of work out, period,” the official said. “There has not been, and is not now, contracts between JSOC and that organization for these types of services.”
Blackwater’s founder Erik Prince contradicted this statement in a recent interview, telling Vanity Fair that Blackwater works with US Special Forces in identifying targets and planning missions, citing an operation in Syria. The magazine also published a photo of a Blackwater base near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The previously unreported program, the military intelligence source said, is distinct from the CIA assassination program, which the agency’s director, Leon Panetta, announced he had canceled this past June. “This is a parallel operation to the CIA,” said the source. “They are two separate beasts.” The program puts Blackwater at the epicenter of a US military operation within the borders of a nation against which the United States has not declared war–knowledge that could further strain the already tense relations between the United States and Pakistan. In 2006 the United States and Pakistan struck a deal that authorized JSOC to enter Pakistan to hunt Osama bin Laden, with the understanding that Pakistan would deny it had given permission. Officially, the United States is not supposed to have any active military operations in the country.