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Outsourcing Battlefield Intelligence Gathering

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Many of the worst-kept secrets surrounding the current war in the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands have to do with how the United States wages drone warfare. One striking aspect of this venture is that much of the drone war has been placed in the hands of the CIA, giving it a frontline combat role in violation of its charter. Another is the heavy use of civilian contractors at every stage—from development of the weaponry to its fabrication, fine-tuning, and guidance. But contractors are also being used as the covert “eyes and ears” of the operation. Mark Mazzetti offered the latest installment in a series of reports on this subject in the New York Times:

Top military officials have continued to rely on a secret network of private spies who have produced hundreds of reports from deep inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to American officials and businessmen, despite concerns among some in the military about the legality of the operation. Earlier this year, government officials admitted that the military had sent a group of former Central Intelligence Agency officers and retired Special Operations troops into the region to collect information — some of which was used to track and kill people suspected of being militants. Many portrayed it as a rogue operation that had been hastily shut down once an investigation began.

But interviews with more than a dozen current and former government officials and businessmen, and an examination of government documents, tell a different a story. Not only are the networks still operating, their detailed reports on subjects like the workings of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan and the movements of enemy fighters in southern Afghanistan are also submitted almost daily to top commanders and have become an important source of intelligence. The American military is largely prohibited from operating inside Pakistan. And under Pentagon rules, the army is not allowed to hire contractors for spying. Military officials said that when Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in the region, signed off on the operation in January 2009, there were prohibitions against intelligence gathering, including hiring agents to provide information about enemy positions in Pakistan. The contractors were supposed to provide only broad information about the political and tribal dynamics in the region, and information that could be used for “force protection,” they said. Some Pentagon officials said that over time the operation appeared to morph into traditional spying activities.

The suggestion that legitimate contractor operations devoted to “atmospherics” have somehow accidentally crossed the line through mission creep into something that looks more like targeting reconnaissance is pretty comical. The Defense Department is not in the borderlands to prepare anthropological studies of the tribal societies there. It is conducting a war, striking targets associated with the Taliban leadership. Moreover, the level of U.S. contractor activities has ramped up in direct proportion to the increase in drone warfare. This is not coincidental.

There’s nothing the matter with the United States engaging in close reconnaissance of its targets; indeed, that is essential if the missiles are to strike combatants and not innocent civilians. But there is a huge problem with contracting out to civilians to do this—in fact, it’s plainly illegal. The work should be done by the military, just as the law requires.

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