Report: CIA hired Blackwater contractors for secret hit squad

The specter of private contractors carrying out assassinations on behalf of the US government has been raised in a New York Times article that says the CIA hired contractors from security firm Blackwater to help carry out its recently-revealed hit squad program.

The article, which appeared at the Times Wednesday night, says that in 2004, contractors from Blackwater “helped the spy agency with planning, training and surveillance” in the secret program that, according to media reports, never became fully functional.

The CIA hit squad, ostensibly meant to target al Qaeda’s leadership in the years after 9/11, became public news when CIA Director Leon Panetta informed congressional intelligence committees about it in late June. Since then, stories have appeared linking Vice President Dick Cheney to the decision to keep the hit squads secret — a decision that may violate the National Security Act, which mandates congressional oversight of the CIA.

The involvement of Blackwater, however, is a new revelation. That the CIA used a private contractor for the program “was a major reason that [Panetta] became alarmed and called an emergency meeting to tell Congress that the agency had withheld details of the program for seven years,” the Times reports.

The Times writes:

It is unclear whether the CIA had planned to use the contractors to capture or kill Qaeda operatives, or just to help with training and surveillance. American spy agencies have in recent years outsourced some highly controversial work, including the interrogation of prisoners. But government officials said that bringing outsiders into a program with lethal authority raised deep concerns about accountability in covert operations.

Officials said that the CIA did not have a formal contract with Blackwater for this program but instead had individual agreements with top company officials, including the founder, Erik D. Prince, a politically connected former member of the Navy Seals and the heir to a family fortune. Blackwater’s work on the program actually ended years before Mr. Panetta took over the agency, after senior C.I.A. officials themselves questioned the wisdom of using outsiders in a targeted killing program.

Blackwater’s reputation was damaged beyond repair on September 16, 2007, when guards employed by the company killed 11 people in Baghdad’s Nisour Square. That resulted in the company being forced out of Iraq, and having to rebrand itself as Xe Services LLC.

Blackwater’s reputation was further damaged by revelations earlier this month that the company’s founder, Erik Prince, has been implicated in “one or more murders” by witnesses who gave depositions in a civil suit against the company.

According to the unnamed witnesses — who are testifying on behalf of Iraqi civilians suing Blackwater — Prince allegedly ordered the killing of at least one person who was planning to testify about “ongoing criminal activity” at the company. (Raw Story, 8.20.2009, Daniel Tencer)

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