Commentary

Spies and Contractors

Generally, when people characterize private security contractors (PSC) as being involved in secretive, covert operations it is a good sign that one is about to hear a rant. True, PSC have been involved in both intelligence and paramilitary work for both the intelligence community and military services. Chapter two of Robert Young Pelton’s book, Licensed To Kill, described just such operators. But generally the people involved in such operations don’t talk about it. And the people who do talk about it publicly generally don’t have a clue. It’s rather like talking about conspiracies. When people talk about them they aren’t true and when one is ongoing people almost never know about it.

But, on rare occasions, one does find a genuine exception, which brings us to the forthcoming book, Operation Dark Heart: Spycraft and Special Ops on the Frontlines of Afghanistan — and The Path to Victory by Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer (USA-Reserve).

Shaffer is a CIA-trained senior intelligence operations officer with more than twenty-five years of experience in the intelligence community. Currently he is a Senior Fellow and Special Lecturer at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, DC.

In 2003 to 2004 he served in Afghanistan, where as a major he led a black-ops team to block the Taliban’s military resurgence. It not only planned intelligence operations to beat back insurgents, but played a key role in carrying out those operations, outside the wire, striking at Taliban safe havens in Pakistan. Those who see a similarity between Shaffer’s book title and Joseph Conrad’s famous novel, Heart of Darkness, are not mistaken. The latter served as inspiration for the former

According to the book’s Amazon page the book was supposed to be published Aug. 31. But it now appears that was premature.

It turns out that even though the U.S. Army signed off on the book’s release over eight months ago, others in the Pentagon are unhappy about some of the book’s contents. In the past the Defense Intelligence Agency had some objections, though it seems those objections actually came from outside the Defense Intelligence Agency. Hmm, outside pressure on an intelligence agency; let’s call it the Dick Cheney syndrome. Now another review is being conducted by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. For a mainstream media take on this see the New York Times article published today.

It is not clear what the outcome will be but it is possible that all the copies that have been printed up of the original version of the book might end up being pulped.

Let me quote from the dust cover, just to give a sense of the book’s contents.

Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer had run intelligence operations for years before he arrived in Afghanistan. He was part of the “dark side” of the force — the shadowy elements of the U.S. government that function outside the bounds of the normal system. His group called themselves the Jedi Knights and pledged to use the dark arts of espionage to protect the country from its enemies.

Operation Dark Heart tells the story of what really went on — and what went wrong — in Afghanistan. Shaffer witnessed firsthand the tipping point, when what seemed like certain victory turned into failure.”

Let’s acknowledge that the use of PSC to try and track down and capture of kill high value targets is not something new. Last December ABC News reported that the CIA and the military special forces have quietly expanded the role of private contractors, including Blackwater , to include their involvement in raids and secret paramilitary operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

The ABC report actually interviewed Shaffer:

A U.S. Army officer who ran human intelligence collections activities in Afghanistan in 2003, Tony Shaffer, says he never worked directly with Blackwater personnel but frequently encountered them in secret operations run by the military and the CIA.

“I actually met with the CIA and Blackwater operatives who were working together, totally hand in glove, to conduct operational planning and support of their objectives, which are paramilitary operations along the border,” said Shaffer, then a Major but now a Lieutenant Colonel who teaches at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies.

“The idea was to bring to bear additional resources for specific special operations missions,” he said. “The purpose for that, in my judgment, may have been to avoid some level of oversight.”

In an August 4 phone conversation with me Shaffer made the following point.

“Blackwater guys were killed in combat. Their deaths might be mentioned by Erick Prince should the government seek to bring charges against him in the future.”

At my request Shaffer sent me an excerpt from a journal he kept:

Evening of 22 October 2003 — After returning to Bagram from an away mission to Asadabad (see dispatches for background), after a two day micro surge looking for Mullah Omar, I was approached by the Bagram post Command Sergeant Major at about 2 AM (0200 hours) local.

He was looking for the “CIA rep” since there were two CIA KIAs in the Bagram clinic — and someone had to claim the bodies and process them for their return to the U.S. There was none — and as the Defense Intel rep — that was close enough for the SgtMajor…I became the “action officer” for the rest of the night…dead tired after having been up for the past 36 hours straight.

To summarize the actions — I was able to call in a C-17 to pick up the bodies quietly just at dawn (about 0600 hours), meet with the CIA Ground Branch officer who had escorted the bodies from Shkin — I spoke directly to the ground branch officer — and he said they were “Blackwater” operatives — that they were contractors supporting CIA and had been out with their Afghan militia they were training — when they were ambushed.

There was no doubt they were NOT CIA employees or US Military attached to the CIA — I have dealt with both categories of individual in the past — these were Blackwater operatives…one was a retired US Army Special Forces NCO and the other a retired enlisted Navy SEAL. Based on this — the fact that they were prior service — I felt that they were due the honors and respect of any fallen warrior — I did not like it one bit. I felt strongly that there was no need for contractors (what I considered mercenaries) operating on the battlefield…this was a perfect example.

I had to interview and do the initial report of the incident — and turn that into the watch — I did not keep a copy of the report — but the information was used later in a SECRET level report regarding the Shkin ambush.

The two CIA officers were killed — targeted — by the Taliban, who were using, for the first time, armor piercing shells (see pictures and briefing cover).

After several hours working this issue full time, the C-17 arrived — and the two Blackwater individuals were evacuated — and as far as I know, they were manifested to Ft. Bragg, NC.

It may be that these contractors did not work for Blackwater. Matthew Cole, an investigative reporter with ABC News, looked into it. He says he was never able to confirm that the two worked for Blackwater. But they definitely were civilian contractors.

They were Christopher Glenn Mueller and William Carlson. Mueller was a former US Navy SEAL and Carlson, a former Army Ranger, Green Beret and Delta Force soldier. They died while tracking high level terrorists near Shkin, Afghanistan, on October 25, 2003. Both officers saved the lives of others, including Afghan soldiers, during the ambush. The CIA released this statement after they were killed.

Insofar as the CIA’s use of contactors is concerned Shaffer says, “This was an attempt for CIA to get around oversight and regulation; to get around Congress; for the purpose of running missions without coordination. There was an instance where he got CIA that one warlord was one of their own assets. So when contractors are used it allows them to do things they normally would not get to do.

“It is one thing not to have operational oversight. It is another to allow Erik Prince to indulge in graymail. People are aware but haven’t done anything about it.”

In regard to David Passaro, who is widely assumed to have been a Blackwater contractor, though it has never been definitively confirmed publicly — “He was going to let Army SF guys taking the rap for it.”

And as for the eight CIA officers killed last December when a suicide bomber detonated at a military base guarded by PSC in the province of Khost he says the “Army would never have allowed foreigners to guard a base camp.”

Despite his criticism Shaffer is not opposed to using PSC. He says “They are desperately in need of them.” But, “If the claim is that they are more effective why are we losing in Afghanistan?”

He said, “Clearly there is a role for contractors but we have lost control of the chance to have a core of competent government officials doing the work, from GS-14 for 114K to go to SAIC and doubling that they have lost the chance to have a professional cadres. Continuing use of contractors is a hollowing out of the U.S. government.”

David Isenberg is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a US Navy veteran, and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.