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?

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

Scott Horton Debates John Rizzo on Democracy Now!

On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada



September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


In Praise of Idleness


I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today