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CIA Hired Contractors To Kill Al-Qaida

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A couple of stories this week shed light on the degree to which the U.S. government outsourced the use of lethal force to Blackwater. That's the private security firm that now goes by the name Xe, spelled X-E, Services. Over the past couple of days, New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti has published two stories in that vein. First, the CIA sought Blackwater's help in trying to target and kill leaders of al-Qaida.

And now, today, Mazzetti reports that Xe Services employs the people who armed the pilotless Predator drones for missions over Pakistan and Afghanistan. And Mark Mazzetti joins us now. Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. MARK MAZZETTI (Reporter, The New York Times): Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And let's start with today's story: What are contractors actually doing with the Predators, and why aren't CIA employees or military people doing that?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Contractors for the company formerly known as Blackwater are both protecting and helping operate a base in - one base in Pakistan and one base in Afghanistan where the pilotless drone airplanes, the Predators or the Reapers, the newer version is called a Reaper, are used regularly to attack militants in Pakistan. They are helping put the weaponry onto the drones, both bombs and laser-guided missiles, Hellfire missiles, as well as providing general security.

The question is: Why are CIA employees not doing it? In some - in one case it's a question of CIA employees got pulled elsewhere. The security officers are needed in other parts of either Afghanistan and Pakistan or other parts of the world. And the feeling is that having Blackwater employees do the security and some of this more maintenance-type work is a good value for the government.

SIEGEL: Is that a common role for contractors to be doing that kind of work?

Mr. MAZZETTI: Contractors do all manner of things in the intelligence world -much more than people would probably think: espionage, you know, intelligence collection, intelligence analysis, participation and covert actions. A lot of this work is done by outside contractors. This is something that has increased since the September 11th attacks for a couple of reasons.

During the 1990s, the intelligence world and the CIA was largely gutted because of the peace dividends and because of just shrinking budgets. When 9/11 happened and all of a sudden the CIA and the Pentagon and intelligence services became a lot busier, they all of a sudden had more to do than they actually had people for. So they looked to outside contractors to fill in the gaps.

SIEGEL: Let's go onto yesterday's story now in The New York Times, that one goes back to 2004, what happened?

Mr. MAZZETTI: In 2004, senior CIA officials looked to Blackwater to help in a program to assassinate senior al-Qaida leaders. This is a program that first came to light last month, when it came out that CIA Director Leon Panetta had recently cancelled the program and told members of Congress that for seven years they had been kept in the dark about the program. What we learned this week was that one of the things that really got Panetta's attention was not just that the CIA was trying to kill al-Qaida members, which we kind of knew for several years - they do it on a regular basis, but in fact that they had contracted with Blackwater, sort of outsourcing this to the private firm to have Blackwater do surveillance training.

And then the question was, you know, down the road, would they have actually tried to do the trigger pulling? As we've reported over the last month, there was never an actual operation performed as part of this program.

SIEGEL: Now, is this in some cases, a case of people who used to work for the CIA or for the government, leaving the government, quitting and then going to work for the outside contractor, perhaps for more pay?

Mr. MAZZETTI: That is the case a lot of times with - in the contracting world, especially in the Pentagon and the CIA. In this case, we're still trying to get more details about who exactly was involved in this CIA program with Blackwater. We know for one it was Erik Prince, who's the founder of Blackwater. And he's an ex-Navy Seal, he's not ex-CIA. However, there were a number of CIA officials, former CIA officials, who went to go work for Blackwater during that period of time. So, certainly there were a lot of connections between the company and between - and the agency. So that's something we're still investigating.

SIEGEL: Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times. Thank you, Mark.

Mr. MAZZETTI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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