Under the cover of a benign government information-gathering program, a defence department official set up a network of private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help track and kill suspected militants, according to military officials and businessmen in Afghanistan and the US, reports New York Times.
The official, Michael Furlong, hired contractors from private security companies that employed former CIA and Special Forces operatives. The contractors, in turn, gathered intelligence on the whereabouts of suspected militants and the location of insurgent camps, and the information was then sent to military units and intelligence officials for possible lethal action in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While it has been widely reported that the CIA and the military are attacking operatives of al-Qaida and others through unmanned, remote-controlled drone strikes, some US officials say they became troubled that Furlong seemed to be running an off-the-books spy operation. The officials say they are not sure who condoned and supervised his work.
It is generally considered illegal for the military to hire contractors to act as covert spies. Officials said Furlong's secret network might have been improperly financed by diverting money from a program designed to merely gather information about the region.
Moreover, in Pakistan, the secret use of private contractors may be seen as an attempt to get around the Pakistani government's prohibition of US military personnel's operating in the country. Furlong is now the subject of a criminal investigation by the defence department for a number of possible offenses, including contract fraud.
Even in a region of the world known for intrigue, Furlong's story stands out. At times, his operation featured a mysterious US company run by retired Special Operations officers and an iconic CIA figure who had a role in some of the agency's most famous episodes, including the Iran-Contra affair. “It's generally a bad idea to have freelancers running around a war zone pretending to be James Bond,” one US official said.
At least one government contractor who worked with Furlong in Afghanistan last year maintains that he saw evidence that the information was used for attacking militants. The contractor, Robert Young Pelton, an author who writes extensively about war zones, said that the government hired him to gather information about Afghanistan and that Furlong improperly used his work. “We were providing information so they could better understand the situation in Afghanistan, and it was being used to kill people,” Pelton said.
He said that he and Eason Jordan, an ex-TV news executive, had been hired by the military to run a public website to help the government gain a better understanding of a region that bedeviled them. Pelton said millions of dollars that were supposed to go to the website were redirected by Furlong toward intelligence gathering for the purpose of attacking militants.
In one example, Pelton said he had been told by Afghan colleagues that video images that he posted on the website had been used for an American strike in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan.
Among the contractors Furlong appears to have used to conduct intelligence gathering was American International Security Corporation, a Boston-based firm run by Mike Taylor. Taylor said he had employed Duane Clarridge, a former top CIA official linked to a generation of CIA adventures, including the Iran-Contra scandal.