Revolving Door to Blackwater Causes Alarm at CIAPlus: More on the Agency's “Wehrmacht”
By Ken Silverstein.
Sep. 15, 2006
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Blackwater USA, the private security contractor that has operated in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and New Orleans, has been booming the past few years. Founded in December of 1996, the company spent its early years “paying staff with an executive's credit card and begging for customers,” according to the Virginian-Pilot. But today, Blackwater reportedly has revenues of about $100 million annually, almost all of it from government contracts, and maintains “a compound half the size of Manhattan and 450 permanent employees,” according to the newspaper.
How did Blackwater rise so high, so fast? The “war on terrorism” got the ball rolling for the firm, but one suspects that political connections played a big part as well. Erik Prince, Blackwater's founder, is a former SEAL who is deeply involved in Republican Party politics. Since 1998, he has funneled roughly $200,000 to GOP committees and candidates, including President Bush. In 2004, Blackwater retained the Alexander Strategy Group, the PR and lobbying firm that closed down earlier this year due to its embarrassing ties to Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay. (Paul Behrends, a former national security adviser to Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, handled the account for Alexander. After the firm shut down, Behrends moved on to a firm called C&M Capitolink, and took the Blackwater account with him.)
A number of senior CIA and Pentagon officials have taken top jobs at Blackwater, including firm vice chairman Cofer Black, who was the Bush Administration's top counterterrorism official at the time of the 9/11 attacks (and who famously said in 2002, “There was before 9/11 and after 9/11. After 9/11, the gloves came off.”) Robert Young Pelton, author of the new book, Licensed to Kill, says that an early Blackwater contract—a secret no-bid $5.4 million deal with the CIA—came in 2002 after Prince placed a call to Buzzy Krongard, who was then the CIA's executive director.
A CIA source with whom I spoke said that Prince is very tight with top agency officials and has a “green badge,” the security pass for contractors who have access to CIA installations. “He's over there [at CIA headquarters] regularly, probably once a month or so,” this person told me. “He meets with senior people, especially in the D.O.” (The D.O., or Directorate of Operations, runs covert operations; last year, it was absorbed by the newly created National Clandestine Service.)
Prince's visits are probably one reason that the revolving door to Blackwater keeps turning. Last fall, Rob Richer resigned from the post of Associate Deputy Director of Operations; he immediately took a job as Blackwater's Vice President of Intelligence. Richer is a former head of the CIA's Near East Division and long served in Amman, where, for a period beginning in 1999, he held the post of station chief. For years he was the agency's point man with Jordan's King Abdullah, with whom he developed an extraordinarily close relationship. “There have been some ups and downs in our relationship with Jordan, but the king has always been on good terms with the CIA,” said a person familiar with the situation. “The king's primary relationship is always with the CIA, not the American ambassador.”
The CIA has lavishly subsidized Jordan's intelligence service, and has sent millions of dollars in recent years for intelligence training. After Richer retired, sources say, he helped Blackwater land a lucrative deal with the Jordanian government to provide the same sort of training offered by the CIA. Millions of dollars that the CIA “invested” in Jordan walked out the door with Richer—if this were a movie, it would be a cross between Jerry Maguire and Syriana. “People [at the agency] are pissed off,” said one source. “Abdullah still speaks with Richer regularly and he thinks that's the same thing as talking to us. He thinks Richer is still the man.” Except in this case it's Richer, not his client, yelling “show me the money.” (Richer did not return a phone call seeking comment.)
Meanwhile, there's talk at the agency that Blackwater is also aggressively recruiting Jose Rodriguez, the CIA's current top spy as director of the National Clandestine Service. Rodriguez has a number of former agency friends at Blackwater, most notably Rick Prado, with whom he served in Latin America and who is now Blackwater's Vice President of Special Programs.
One of my sources told me that agency employees have voiced concerns to CIA director Michael Hayden about the Blackwater revolving door. “In a situation like this, there are too many opportunities for people to scratch each others' backs,” he said.
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Note: Another internal concern at the CIA is that employees involved in the agency's secret detention program might be hit with subpoenas or indictments if the Democrats win control of the House in November. I noted this back in April; on Monday, the Washington Post had a front-page story saying that CIA counterterrorism officers have “signed up in growing numbers for a government-reimbursed, private insurance plan that would pay their civil judgments and legal expenses if they are sued or charged with criminal wrongdoing . . . The new enrollments reflect heightened anxiety at the CIA that officers may be vulnerable to accusations they were involved in abuse, torture, human rights violations and other misconduct, including wrongdoing related to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.”
I'm told that a number of CIA employees have been complaining to Inspector General John Helgerson about the detainee program. “They have told him that they don't like the program and they want to be on the record about it now, in case the subpoenas start flying,” a source reports.