AFGHANISTAN/US: Contractors Tied to Effort to Track and Kill Militants

Publisher Name: 
New York Times
From Left: United States Air Force; Robert Young
Pelton; Mike Wintroath/Associated Press; Adam Berry/Bloomberg News

From left: Michael D. Furlong, the official who was
said to have hired private contractors to track militants in Afghanistan
and Pakistan; Robert Young Pelton, a contractor; Duane Clarridge, a
former C.I.A. official; and Eason Jordan, a former television news
executive.

Under the cover of a benign government information-gathering program,
a Defense 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 United States.

The official, Michael D. Furlong, hired contractors from private
security companies that employed former C.I.A. 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, the officials
said.

While it has been widely reported that the C.I.A. and the military are
attacking operatives of Al Qaeda and
others through unmanned, remote-controlled drone strikes, some American officials say
they became troubled that Mr. 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 Mr. 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, where Qaeda and Taliban
leaders are believed to be hiding, the secret use of private contractors
may be seen as an attempt to get around the Pakistani government's
prohibition of American military personnel's operating in the country.

Officials say Mr. Furlong's operation seems to have been shut down, and
he is now is the subject of a criminal investigation by the Defense
Department for a number of possible offenses, including contract fraud.

Even in a region of the world known for intrigue, Mr. Furlong's story
stands out. At times, his operation featured a mysterious American
company run by retired Special Operations officers and an iconic C.I.A.
figure who had a role in some of the agency's most famous episodes,
including the Iran-Contra affair.

The allegations that he ran this network come as the American
intelligence community confronts other instances in which private
contractors may have been improperly used on delicate and questionable
operations, including secret raids in Iraq and an assassinations program
that was halted before it got off the ground.

"While no legitimate intelligence operations got screwed up, it's
generally a bad idea to have freelancers running around a war zone
pretending to be James Bond," one American government official said. But
it is still murky whether Mr. Furlong had approval from top commanders
or whether he might have been running a rogue operation.

This account of his activities is based on interviews with American
military and intelligence officials and businessmen in the region. They
insisted on anonymity in discussing a delicate case that is under
investigation.

Col. Kathleen Cook, a spokeswoman for United States Strategic Command,
which oversees Mr. Furlong's work, declined to make him available for an
interview. Military officials said Mr. Furlong, a retired Army
officer, is now a senior civilian employee in the military, a full-time
Defense Department employee based at Lackland Air
Force
Base in San Antonio.

Network of Informants

Mr. Furlong has extensive experience in "psychological operations" - the
military term for the use of information in warfare - and he plied his
trade in a number of places, including Iraq and the Balkans. It is
unclear exactly when Mr. Furlong's operations began. But officials said
they seemed to accelerate in the summer of 2009, and by the time they
ended, he and his colleagues had established a network of informants in
Afghanistan and Pakistan whose job it was to help locate people believed
to be insurgents.

Government officials said they believed that Mr. Furlong might have
channeled money away from a program intended to provide American
commanders with information about Afghanistan's social and tribal
landscape, and toward secret efforts to hunt militants on both sides of
the country's porous border with Pakistan.

Some officials said it was unclear whether these operations actually
resulted in the deaths of militants, though others involved in the
operation said that they did.

Military officials said that Mr. Furlong would often boast about his
network of informants in Afghanistan and Pakistan to senior military
officers, and in one instance said a group of suspected militants
carrying rockets by mule over the border had been singled out and killed
as a result of his efforts.

In addition, at least one government contractor who worked with Mr.
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 Mr. 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," Mr.
Pelton said.

He said that he and Eason Jordan, a former television news executive,
had been hired by the military to run a public Web site to help the
government gain a better understanding of a region that bedeviled them.
Recently, the top military intelligence official in Afghanistan publicly
said that intelligence collection was skewed too heavily toward hunting
terrorists, at the expense of gaining a deeper understanding of the
country.

Instead, Mr. Pelton said, millions of dollars that were supposed to go
to the Web site were redirected by Mr. Furlong toward intelligence
gathering for the purpose of attacking militants.

In one example, Mr. Pelton said he had been told by Afghan colleagues
that video images that he posted on the Web site had been used for an
American strike in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan.

Among the contractors Mr. Furlong appears to have used to conduct
intelligence gathering was International Media Ventures, a private
"strategic communication" firm run by several former Special Operations
officers. Another was American International Security Corporation, a
Boston-based company run by Mike Taylor, a former Green Beret. In a
phone interview, Mr. Taylor said that at one point he had employed
Duane Clarridge, known as Dewey, a former top C.I.A. official who has
been linked to a generation of C.I.A. adventures, including the
Iran-Contra scandal.

In an interview, Mr. Clarridge denied that he had worked with Mr.
Furlong in any operation in Afghanistan or Pakistan. "I don't know
anything about that," he said.

Mr. Taylor, who is chief executive of A.I.S.C., said his company
gathered information on both sides of the border to give military
officials information about possible threats to American forces. He said
his company was not specifically hired to provide information to kill
insurgents.

Some American officials contend that Mr. Furlong's efforts amounted to
little. Nevertheless, they provoked the ire of the C.I.A.

Last fall, the spy agency's station chief in Kabul, Afghanistan's
capital, wrote a memorandum to the Defense Department's top intelligence
official detailing what officials said were serious offenses by Mr.
Furlong. The officials would not specify the offenses, but the officer's
cable helped set off the Pentagon investigation.

Afghan Intelligence

In mid-2008, the military put Mr. Furlong in charge of a program to use
private companies to gather information about the political and tribal
culture of Afghanistan. Some of the approximately $22 million in
government money allotted to this effort went to International Media
Ventures, with offices in St. Petersburg, Fla., San Antonio and
elsewhere. On its Web site, the company describes itself as a public
relations company, "an industry leader in creating potent messaging
content and interactive communications."

The Web site also shows that several of its senior executives are former
members of the military's Special Operations forces, including former
commandos from Delta Force, which has been used extensively since the
Sept. 11 attacks to track and kill suspected terrorists.

Until recently, one of the members of International Media's board of
directors was Gen. Dell L. Dailey, former head of Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the
military's covert units.

In an e-mail message, General Dailey said that he had resigned his post
on the company's board, but he did not say when. He did not give details
about the company's work with the American military, and other company
executives declined to comment.

In an interview, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the top military spokesman in
Afghanistan, said that the United States military was currently
employing nine International Media Ventures civilian employees on
routine jobs in administration, information processing and analysis.
Whatever else other International Media employees might be doing in
Afghanistan, he said, he did not know and had no responsibility for
their actions.

By Mr. Pelton's account, Mr. Furlong, in conversations with him and his
colleagues, referred to his stable of contractors as "my Jason Bournes,"
a reference to the fictional American assassin created by the novelist Robert
Ludlum
and played in movies by Matt Damon.

Military officials said that Mr. Furlong would occasionally brag to his
superiors about having Mr. Clarridge's services at his disposal. Last
summer, Mr. Furlong told colleagues that he was working with Mr.
Clarridge to secure the release of Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, a kidnapped
soldier who American officials believe is being held by militants in
Pakistan.

From December 2008 to mid-June 2009, both Mr. Taylor and Mr. Clarridge
were hired to assist The New York Times in the case of David Rohde, the
Times reporter who was kidnapped by militants in Afghanistan and held
for seven months in Pakistan's tribal areas. The reporter ultimately
escaped on his own.

The idea for the government information program was thought up sometime
in 2008 by Mr. Jordan, a former CNN news chief, and his partner Mr.
Pelton, whose books include "The World's Most Dangerous Places" and
"Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror."

Top General Approached

They approached Gen. David
D. McKiernan
, soon to become the top American commander in
Afghanistan. Their proposal was to set up a reporting and research
network in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the American military and
private clients who were trying to understand a complex region that had
become vital to Western interests. They already had a similar operation
in Iraq - called "Iraq Slogger," which employed local Iraqis to report
and write news stories for their Web site. Mr. Jordan proposed setting
up a similar Web site in Afghanistan and Pakistan - except that the
operation would be largely financed by the American military. The name
of the Web site was Afpax.

Mr. Jordan said that he had gone to the United States military because
the business in Iraq was not profitable relying solely on private
clients. He described his proposal as essentially a news gathering
operation, involving only unclassified materials gathered openly by his
employees. "It was all open-source," he said.

When Mr. Jordan made the pitch to General McKiernan, Mr. Furlong was
also present, according to Mr. Jordan. General McKiernan endorsed the
proposal, and Mr. Furlong said that he could find financing for Afpax,
both Mr. Jordan and Mr. Pelton said. "On that day, they told us to get
to work," Mr. Pelton said.

But Mr. Jordan said that the help from Mr. Furlong ended up being
extremely limited. He said he was paid twice - once to help the company
with start-up costs and another time for a report his group had written.
Mr. Jordan declined to talk about exact figures, but said the amount of
money was a "small fraction" of what he had proposed - and what it took
to run his news gathering operation.

Whenever he asked for financing, Mr. Jordan said, Mr. Furlong told him
that the money was being used for other things, and that the appetite
for Mr. Jordan's services was diminishing.

"He told us that there was less and less money for what we were doing,
and less of an appreciation for what we were doing," he said.

Admiral Smith, the military's director for strategic communications in
Afghanistan, said that when he arrived in Kabul a year later, in June
2009, he opposed financing Afpax. He said that he did not need what Mr.
Pelton and Mr. Jordan were offering and that the service seemed
uncomfortably close to crossing into intelligence gathering - which
could have meant making targets of individuals.

"I took the air out of the balloon," he said.

Admiral Smith said that the C.I.A. was against the proposal for the
same reasons. Mr. Furlong persisted in pushing the project, he said.

"I finally had to tell him, 'Read my lips,' we're not interested,' "
Admiral Smith said.

What happened next is unclear.

Admiral Smith said that when he turned down the Afpax proposal, Mr.
Furlong wanted to spend the leftover money elsewhere. That is when Mr.
Furlong agreed to provide some of International Media Ventures'
employees to Admiral Smith's strategic communications office.

But that still left roughly $15 million unaccounted for, he said.

"I have no idea where the rest of the money is going," Admiral Smith
said.

Dexter Filkins reported from Kabul, and Mark Mazzetti from
Washington.

This article has been revised to reflect the
following correction:

Correction: March 16, 2010

An article on Monday about a spy network, according to military and
business officials, composed of private contractors in Afghanistan and
Pakistan established by Michael D. Furlong, a Defense Department
official based at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, misidentified
the branch of the military in which Mr. Furlong had once served as an
officer. It is the Army, not the Air Force.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
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  • 106 Money & Politics
  • 187 Privatization
  • 208 Regulation