WASHINGTON — The secret CIA program to kill top al-Qaida leaders with assassination teams was outsourced in 2004 to Blackwater USA, the private security contractor whose operations in Iraq prompted intense scrutiny, according to two former intelligence officials familiar with the events.
The North Carolina-based company was given operational responsibility for targeting terrorist commanders and was awarded millions of dollars for training and weaponry, but the program was canceled before any missions were conducted, the two officials said.
The assassination program — revealed to Congress in June by CIA Director Leon Panetta — was initially launched in 2001 as a CIA-led effort to kill or capture top al-Qaida using the agency’s paramilitary forces. But in 2004, after briefly terminating the program, agency officials decided to revive it under a different code name, using outside contractors, the officials said.
“Outsourcing gave the agency more protection in case something went wrong,” said a retired intelligence officer intimately familiar with the assassination program.
The contract was awarded to Blackwater, now known as Xe Services LLC, in part because of its close ties to the CIA and because of its record for carrying out covert assignments overseas, the officials said. The security contractor’s senior management has included high-ranking former CIA officials, including Cofer Black, the agency’s former top counterterrorism official, who joined the company in early 2005, three months after leaving the CIA.
The plan to kill top al-Qaida leaders was thrust into the spotlight in July, shortly after Panetta briefed members of two congressional panels about the program. Panetta told House and Senate leaders that he had only recently learned of the program and, upon doing so, had canceled it. Panetta also told lawmakers that he thought they had been inappropriately kept in the dark about the plan — in part because former Vice President Dick Cheney had directed the CIA not to reveal the program to Congress.
The CIA declined comment today about Blackwater’s alleged involvement in the program, which was first reported tonight on the Web site of the New York Times. Efforts to reach Blackwater for comment late today were unsuccessful.
Agency officials again defended Panetta’s decision to terminate the effort and notify congressional overseers.
“Director Panetta thought this effort should be briefed to Congress, and he did so,” CIA spokesman George Little said. “He also knew it hadn’t been successful, so he ended it. Neither decision was difficult. This was clear and straightforward.”
The House intelligence committee has launched an investigation into whether the CIA broke the law by failing to notify Congress about the program for eight years. Current and former agency officials have disputed claims by some Democratic lawmakers that the withholding of key details of the program was illegal.
“Director Panetta did not tell the committees that the agency had misled the Congress or had broken the law,” Little said. “He decided that the time had come to brief Congress on a counterterrorism effort that was, in fact, much more than a PowerPoint presentation.”