Diving Deep into Blackwater

Press pushes ahead on the CIA assassination story

So it turns out there was more to that story about the secret CIA assassination program that made waves five weeks ago. Last night, on its Web site, The New York Times broke the news that, in 2004, the CIA hired controversial military contracting form Blackwater USA (now known as Xe Services) to support its unsuccessful effort to capture and kill top al Qaeda operatives overseas. The Washington Post and the Associated Press have since advanced the story.

The news hasn’t really caught fire in the foreign policy/national security blogs, which are currently focused on the elections in Afghanistan. Still, it’s an important revelation, and one that may help to answer one of the big questions raised by the earlier round of reporting: Why were Democrats in Congress so upset when they first learned about the assassination program from new CIA director Leon Panetta in June? As more than one observer noted at the time, the existence of a targeted assassination program couldn’t come as a big surprise. But the involvement of Blackwater is the sort of thing that would raise alarm bells.

That said, it’s clear we still don’t know everything there is to know about the program—and what we do know from the different papers doesn’t always add up. One of the biggest questions raised by today’s stories is just what Blackwater’s role was. In the Times, Mark Mazzetti notes that executives from the company were hired to assist the CIA with “planning, training and surveillance,” but it is “unclear” whether the contractors were expected to join in actual missions (which never took place, in any event). In the Post, though, Joby Warrick and R. Jeffrey Smith write that Blackwater “was given operational responsibility for targeting terrorist commanders”—which sounds like a lot more than just running “how-to-nab-a-terrorist” workshops. The Post also makes no mention of a distinction strongly emphasized by the Times: the claim that the CIA did not hire Blackwater proper, but instead contracted with individual executives at the company.

Also unresolved is just how close the program came to implementation. All the press reports have stressed that the program never reached the operational phase—a source of “much frustration” to team members, according to the Post—but according to a CIA spokesman, Panetta decided to brief Congress because it had become “much more than a PowerPoint presentation.” So how close was the CIA to deploying assassins in theater? We don’t really know.

But the biggest difference between today’s stories, as Daniel Politi noted in Slate, is the way the CIA officials viewed Blackwater’s involvement. According to the Times, “Blackwater’s work on the program actually ended years before Mr. Panetta took over the agency, after senior C.I.A. officials themselves questioned the wisdom of using outsiders in a targeted killing program.” But the Post notes that Blackwater’s involvement was seen as a feature when the CIA decided to restart the broader assassination program in 2004, after it had temporarily been shelved. “Outsourcing gave the agency more protection in case something went wrong,” one source tells the paper.

It will be a wonderful day when newspapers finally take a page from bloggers and allow their reporters to address and explain discrepancies like these. (Anyone who really cares about the story is also reading your competitor’s version, guys.) In the meantime, we can read between the lines to look for clues. In this case, one might be a name found only in Pamela Hess’s AP report: Porter Goss, a former Florida congressman who briefly served as CIA director between the tenures of George Tenet and Michael Hayden. The AP reports that Goss restarted the broader assassination program after he arrived at the CIA in September 2004; if true, that means Blackwater was also brought in during his tenure. And the Times’s claim that Blackwater’s involvement was terminated “years before” Panetta’s arrival early in 2009 is consistent with Goss’s departure from the CIA in spring 2006.

That’s all speculative, of course—and it may simply turn out that former vice president Dick Cheney, who’s been linked to this program, was making most of the decisions. But with a bit of luck and some more good reporting, we may have some answers soon enough.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.