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Outsourcing intelligence

The headline read like something you might see in the conspiracy-minded Pakistani press: "Contractors Tied to Effort to Track and Kill Militants." But the story appeared in Monday's New York Times, and it highlighted some big problems that have developed in the murky area between military and intelligence activities.

The starting point for understanding this covert intrigue is that the U.S. military has long been unhappy about the quality of CIA intelligence in Afghanistan. The frustration surfaced publicly in January in a report by the top military intelligence officer in Kabul, Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, that began: "Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy."

It's a complicated tale, but it has some simple lessons: Under the heading of "information operations" or "force protection," the military has launched intelligence activities that, were they conducted by the CIA, might require a presidential finding and notification of Congress. And by using contractors who operate "outside the wire" in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the military has gotten information that is sometimes better than what the CIA is offering.

A reconstruction of what happened, based on conversations with a half-dozen military and intelligence sources, raises two crucial issues: What new military procedures are needed to bring "information operations" and related activities under better control? And how can the CIA improve its own collection efforts so private contractors aren't brought in to fill the gaps?

The outsourced intelligence operation described by the Times began in 2008, with a push from the Pentagon's Strategic Command, which oversees information operations. A Stratcom civilian named Michael D. Furlong began hiring former journalists to provide "ground truth," with an initial budget of $22 million.

Another private intelligence effort was launched in November 2008, when a Boston firm called American International Security Corp. was hired by The New York Times to free its reporter David Rohde, who had been kidnapped by the Taliban that month. The firm turned to Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, a former CIA officer who launched the agency's counterterrorism center in 1986 and was an important figure in the Iran-contra affair. He set about building a network of informants who could help free Rohde.

Rohde escaped in June 2009, but Clarridge's network continued to function. It currently has about 10 operatives who act as case officers, drawn from the United States, Britain, South Africa and other countries. These officers, in turn, run about 20 "principal agents" who are in contact with roughly 40 sources in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The two outsourced operations linked up in mid-2009, after Furlong met one of Clarridge's operatives in Dubai. In October, the military awarded a contract for several million dollars to Clarridge and AISC through a series of subcontractors.

The CIA, meanwhile, was flummoxed by Clarridge's freelancing. The new chief of station in Kabul protested last summer, and lawyers drew up new rules. Clarridge's mission was described as "force protection," a normal military activity in a war zone.

The tensions led Adm. Denis Blair, the director of national intelligence, to argue privately that the country may need what could be described as a new "Title 60," that blends the two in a coherent framework with proper controls. The case of the clandestine contractors should prompt a serious debate about creating such a Title 60, and about the military's rules for information operations. Meanwhile, Clarridge's private network continues to provide fresh intelligence.

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