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US Spy Operations Become More Reliant on Contractors

The U.S. Defense Department has ordered an investigation into allegations that one of its employees set up a spy network of private contractors to help track down suspected militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The allegations, which first appeared in The New York Times, are that Defense Department employee Michael Furlong gathered intelligence on the whereabouts of suspected militants and the information was then sent to military units and intelligence officials for possible lethal action. But outsourcing intelligence operations to contractors is controversial.

Journalist Tim Shorrock, author of the book Spies for Hire, says the military and the CIA have increasingly turned to outside help for secret operations. "The use of private contractors for top-secret intelligence operations is fairly common. There is a line in the story pretty high up that says 'it is generally considered illegal for military to hire contractors to act as covert spies.' Well, I do not know what the New York Times is talking about because the Defense Intelligence Agency, which carries out covert operations as military units, military intelligence units, is highly contracted," he said.

All intelligence agencies are using contractors to fill personnel gaps in areas like analysis and logistics. But the use of contractors for secret intelligence operations is a controversial area. U.S. law forbids employment of mercenaries, but the circumstances under which private contractors can be employed for secret paramilitary operations is a gray area.

A defense intelligence official told VOA the Defense Intelligence Agency has the legal authority for clandestine activities, but does not contract them out.

Normally hunting down suspected militants would be a job for Special Operations troops, working in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency's paramilitary operatives.

But former Army intelligence officer Tony Shaffer says that starting in 2001, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld decided to hoard Special Operations forces for his department and was reluctant to loan them out to the CIA. Shaffer, who was chief of operations for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004, says that forced the CIA to start using more contractors in operations. "The decision was that DOD [Department of Defense], which owned the resource, would be getting the resource over CIA. And this resulted, I think, in CIA in almost an act of desperation trying to find a way to continue to augment and expand its paramilitary operations during the period," he said.

Contractors were originally used in Afghanistan and Iraq to provide physical security for bases and convoys. But Shaffer, now with the nongovernmental Center for Advanced Defense Studies, says contractors like Blackwater are being used in roles for which they were not originally envisioned. "I can tell you first hand that, from my experience, the Blackwater contractors in Afghanistan were being used as mercenaries, augmenting the mission of CIA to conduct things. And the idea was this allowed them [CIA] to ramp up rapidly in an area where they did not have a great deal of ability to perform - in this case, paramilitary operations," he said.

Shaffer says he personally dealt with two contractor casualties, Blackwater operatives killed while on a mission for the CIA. "I actually had to handle these guys who were killed. And they were Blackwater contractors who were performing a combat search-and-destroy mission with paramilitary individuals at the time they were killed. So clearly they were not there just to provide security. They were actually on an active mission," he said.

Many of the contractors are former government intelligence officers, lured away by the enticement of as much as twice their government salary for doing the same job for an outside company.

Tim Shorrock says increasing use of contractors for intelligence work, particularly operations, makes oversight difficult. "Contracting does operate differently than government-run, 100-percent government-run, operations. There is not that much accountability in CIA and covert operations anyway. Only a few people know about. But when it is contractors there is even less accountability and transparency, because you can hide contracts in all kinds of ways and bury the information, and the whole lines of authority who they report to, and all that is sometimes quite obscure," he said.

Laws governing the liability of intelligence contractors who commit misdeeds while on government business are still unsettled.

Shaffer says until that is resolved, problems with contractors will continue. "This is not a decided area of law. But as a taxpayer you have got to ask yourself the question, if I am funding this, do I want these things done in my name? Because any taxpayer, who pays taxes, that money is appropriated for whatever purposes the law says. So until there is some better definition of what a contractor can and cannot do, I think we are going to have this sort of problem popping up indefinitely," he said.

Two members of Congress, Democrat Jan Schakowsky and Independent Bernie Sanders, proposed legislation last month that would phase out the use of private security contractors in war zones.