No Comment — March 15, 2010, 12:44 pm

Jason Bourne Does Waziristan

Last week, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of Britain’s MI5, said her U.S. counterparts acted as if they took their cue from having watched Fox’s “24” program. But today we learn from the New York Times’s Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti that comparisons to the Jason Bourne novels would be more on point. Filkins and Mazzetti offer a new report on the use of private contractors in connection with some of the most sensitive operations in the difficult Afghanistan-Pakistan border area:

Under the cover of a benign government information-gathering program, a Defense Department official set up a network of private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help track and kill suspected militants, according to military officials and businessmen in Afghanistan and the United States. The official, Michael D. Furlong, hired contractors from private security companies that employed former C.I.A. and Special Forces operatives. The contractors, in turn, gathered intelligence on the whereabouts of suspected militants and the location of insurgent camps, and the information was then sent to military units and intelligence officials for possible lethal action in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the officials said.

While it has been widely reported that the C.I.A. and the military are attacking operatives of Al Qaeda and others through unmanned, remote-controlled drone strikes, some American officials say they became troubled that Mr. Furlong seemed to be running an off-the-books spy operation. The officials say they are not sure who condoned and supervised his work. It is generally considered illegal for the military to hire contractors to act as covert spies. Officials said Mr. Furlong’s secret network might have been improperly financed by diverting money from a program designed to merely gather information about the region.

The article provides some striking examples of how what was billed as a public-affairs operation actually was used to gain intelligence for targeting. Robert Young Pelton, a well-known analyst, is quoted as stating, “We were providing information so they could better understand the situation in Afghanistan, and it was being used to kill people.” He also quotes Michael Furlong referring to his deployed contractors as “my Jason Bournes,” after the figure in the Robert Ludlum novels.

Two contractors identified in the article are International Media Ventures (IMV) and International Security Corporation. IMV’s website touts its tight connections with the Department of Defense and the fact that it is engaged on highly classified projects. “Key personnel average over 30 years of high quality DoD professional experience,” it states. Its career opportunities page shows a number of slots for which high-level security clearance is required. The Times article makes clear why what is nominally a public-relations operation would need analysts with such credentials.

It certainly isn’t surprising that the Defense Department has on-the-ground targeting operations. As Jane Mayer made clear, the shortage of reliable targeting information has long been viewed as a weak point of the United States drone war in the Afpak border area. The Defense Department has been focused on improving the quality of this information. However, relying on private contractors for specific targeting data in the ways Filkins and Mazzetti identify raises obvious issues of oversight, accountability, and legality.

This is most likely only the beginning of the story. It’s clear that the war in the Afpak region is being waged with an unprecedentedly heavy reliance on private contractors, in which many of the most sensitive functions—which previously would have been handled by the military or the intelligence community—have been shopped out. No doubt this is done in part to provide deniability—so that Secretary Gates can visit Islamabad and deny that the U.S. military has a substantial presence in Pakistan, for instance. But it also reflects policy choices by the Pentagon leadership, in the face of strong criticism of their heavy reliance on private security contractors, to continue and in fact extend that reliance. All of this has occurred without apparent congressional oversight or participation in the formation of policy, and while a special congressional commission is studying the issue. What will the Webb-McCaskill Commission have to say about it, one wonders? Perhaps the question is more simple: has the commission even succeeded in learning what the Defense Department is up to in the Afpak border area?

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