CIA outsources bombing in Pakistan

The agency hires Blackwater company to locate and kill al-Qaeda operatives

 From a secret division at its North Carolina headquarters, the company formerly known as Blackwater has assumed a role in Washington’s most important counterterrorism programme: the use of remotely piloted drones to kill al-Qaeda’s leaders, according to government officials and current and former employees.

The division’s operations are carried out at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company’s contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). They also provide security at the covert bases, the officials said.

The role of the company in the Predator programme highlights the degree to which the CIA now depends on outside contractors to perform some of the agency’s most important assignments. And it illustrates the resilience of Blackwater, now known as Xe (pronounced Zee) Services, though most people in and outside the company still refer to it as Blackwater. It has grown through government work, even as it attracted criticism and allegations of brutality in Iraq.

The agency hired Blackwater in 2004 as part of a secret programme to locate and assassinate top Qaeda operatives.

In interviews on Thursday, current and former government officials provided new details about Blackwater’s association with the assassination programme, which began in 2004 not long after Porter J Goss took over at the CIA. The officials said the spy agency did not dispatch the Blackwater executives with a “licence to kill.” Instead, it ordered the contractors to begin collecting information on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda’s leaders, carry out surveillance and train for possible missions.

“The actual pulling of a trigger in some ways is the easiest part, and the part that requires the least expertise,” said one government official. “It’s everything that leads up to it that’s the meat of the issue.”

CIA approval

Any operation to capture or kill militants would have had to have been approved by the CIA director and presented to the White House before it was carried out, the officials said. The agency’s current director, Leon E Panetta, cancelled the programme and notified Congress of its existence in an emergency meeting in June.

For its intelligence work, Blackwater’s sprawling headquarters in North Carolina has a special division, known as Blackwater Select. The company’s first major arrangement with the CIA was signed in 2002, with a contract to provide security for the agency’s new station in Kabul, Afghanistan. Blackwater employees assigned to the Predator bases receive training at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to learn how to load Hellfire missiles and laser-guided smart bombs on the drones, according to current and former employees, who asked not to be identified for fear of upsetting the company.

The CIA has for several years operated Predator drones out of a remote base in Shamsi, Pakistan, but has secretly added a second site at an air base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, several current and former government and company officials said. Officials said the CIA now conducted most of its Predator missile and bomb strikes on targets in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region from the Jalalabad base, with drones landing or taking off almost hourly. The base in Pakistan is still in use. But officials said that the United States decided to open the Afghanistan operation in part because of the possibility that the Pakistani government, facing growing anti-American sentiment at home, might force the CIA to close the one in Pakistan.

Blackwater is not involved in selecting targets or actual strikes. The targets are selected by the CIA, and employees at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, pull the trigger remotely, officials said.

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