When the CIA revived a plan to kill or capture terrorists in 2004, the agency turned to the well-connected security company then known as Blackwater USA.
With Blackwater’s lucrative government security work and contacts positioned in hot spots around the world, company officials offered the services of foreigners supposedly skilled at tracking terrorists in lawless regions and countries where the CIA had no working relationships with the government.
Blackwater told the CIA that it “could put people on the ground to provide the surveillance and support - all of the things you need to conduct an operation,” a former senior CIA official familiar with the secret program told the Associated Press.
But the CIA’s use of the private contractor as part of its now-abandoned plan to dispatch death squads skirted concerns now re-emerging with recent disclosures about Blackwater’s role.
The former CIA official said he had doubts during his tenure about whether Blackwater’s foreign recruits had mastered the necessary skills to pull off such a high-stakes operation. Blackwater’s later hiring of several senior CIA officials who were involved in or aware of the secret program, including one of the men who ran the operation, showed the blurred lines of using a private contractor for such a highly classified and dangerous project.
While Blackwater won the government’s confidence by handling security and training operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2004 decision by CIA officials to entrust the North Carolina-based company with such a sensitive overseas operation struck some former agency officials as highly unusual.
“The question remains: Why do we need Blackwater?” said Charles Faddis, a former department chief at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center who retired in 2008 and was not involved in the secret program. “I remain mystified. This is quintessential CIA work. You wonder what it means that the CIA has to rely on Blackwater? Why are we still funding the CIA?”
The former senior CIA official who had knowledge of the program explained that “you wouldn’t want to have American fingerprints on it.”
The former official and several other current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information remains classified.
Xe spokeswoman Stacy DeLuke did not respond to questions seeking comment. Blackwater altered its corporate name to Xe Services after a series of use-of-force controversies, including a September 2007 shooting in Baghdad by five company security guards that left 17 civilians dead.
The former senior CIA official said that close to a dozen Blackwater “surrogates” were recruited to join the death-squad program.
The operation had several lives under four successive CIA directors: George J. Tenet started the program during the Bush administration, but canceled it because, another former CIA official said, there were too many risks involved.
The operation was revived under Mr. Tenet’s successor, Porter J. Goss, who ran the agency from 2004 to 2006. Michael V. Hayden, who served from 2006 to 2009, downgraded the program to intelligence-gathering only. Leon E. Panetta, the current director, killed the operation in June.
The trainees never got a chance to prove themselves. They were never provided a target, and no operation was ever approved. CIA spokesman George Little said the program yielded no successes.
The CIA started planning for its death-squad project shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The agency wanted the ability to target terrorists at close range, providing an alternative to air strikes that ran the risk of accidentally killing civilians.
When Mr. Panetta terminated the CIA’s death-squad program in June, he informed congressional intelligence committees about its existence in an emergency briefing.
The House Intelligence Committee is investigating whether the CIA broke the law by not quickly informing Congress about the secret program.