WASHINGTON — The CIA hired the security firm Blackwater in 2004 as part of its secret program to find and kill Al Qaeda leaders, US media said Thursday, citing current and former intelligence officials.
The program, on which the Central Intelligence Agency spent several million dollars, was cut before launching any missions and the hiring of an outside company was a major reason that CIA director Leon Panetta moved to cancel it, the New York Times said.
Shortly after learning about the effort in June, Panetta pulled the plug and briefed lawmakers on details of the program, of which they had not been informed since 2001.
Citing government officials, the Times said the CIA had separate agreements with top Blackwater executives for the outsourcing, as opposed to a formal contract with the whole firm.
The State Department cut ties with Blackwater following ongoing allegations of abuse in Iraq. The North Carolina-based company renamed itself Xe after the Iraq government banned it in January over the killings in Baghdad’s Nisur Square on September 16, 2007.
It had been given “operational responsibility” for the targeting program, according to the Washington Post, which noted the covert effort was canceled before any missions were conducted.
Before the program was cut, however, the private security firm had already been awarded “millions of dollars for training and weaponry,” according to the Post.
“Outsourcing gave the agency more protection in case something went wrong,” said an unnamed intelligence official close to program, quoted by daily.
Lawmakers from the majority Democratic Party have accused former vice president Dick Cheney of abusing his power by ordering the CIA to withhold information from Congress about the program.
Panetta told members of Congress that Cheney ordered the agency not to share details of the program with legislators, according to Senate Intelligence Committee head Dianne Feinstein, who in July described the program as being “outside the law.”
Blackwater protected US government personnel in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and has had around 1,000 staff in the violence-wracked country, making it among the largest security firms operating there.
It first came under scrutiny on March 31, 2004, when four of its employees were killed by an angry mob in Fallujah, then a Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold.
The crowd mutilated their bodies and strung them from a bridge, shocking images that were broadcast worldwide and led to a month-long assault on Fallujah that left 36 US soldiers, 200 insurgents and 600 civilians dead.
Copyright © 2009 AFP.