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US Hired Contractors to Hunt, Kill al-Qaida Operatives

Two U.S. newspapers are reporting that the Central Intelligence Agency hired contractors from a private security firm as part of a program to locate and kill top al-Qaida operatives.

Former and current officials speaking on the condition of anonymity tell The New York Times and The Washington Post that Blackwater USA, now known as Xe, helped the CIA with planning, training and surveillance in 2004. It is not known whether the agency planned to use contractors to capture or kill operatives.

The officials say the use of an outside company for a classified program was a major reason why CIA Director Leon Panetta informed the U.S. Congress about the program in June. Panetta told lawmakers he canceled the program after learning about it.

Blackwater employees hired to protect American diplomats in Iraq were accused of using excessive force during a September 2007 shooting in Baghdad that killed 17 Iraqi civilians.

The U.S. House of Representatives has launched an investigation into whether the CIA violated any laws by withholding information about the program. The New York Times previously reported that former Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the CIA to withhold information from Congress.

The company, which is based in the southeastern state of North Carolina, lost its license to work in Iraq after the 2007 shooting in Baghdad. The firm claimed security guards opened fire on the civilians after being ambushed, but a U.S. investigation uncovered no evidence of an attack.

Five former Blackwater contractors have pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter in connection with that shooting. A sixth guard pleaded guilty in late 2007 to voluntary manslaughter and attempted manslaughter charges.

Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters.