The New York Times is positively aghast. Attempting to resurrect the controversy about a defunct CIA program that was never briefed to Congress, the paper has revealed one reason for the non-disclosure.
According to the Times, the spy agency hired Blackwater, the private security firm, to assist in locating (and eliminating) high-value Al Qaida terrorists. Under a multi-million agreement with the CIA, Blackwater (later renamed Xe Services) was supposed to provide support for the operation. Times reporter Mark Mazetti says it's unclear if Blackwater operatives were hired to actually track down and kill terrorists, or simply provide surveillance and training assistance for the operation.
Blackwater's participation was apparently one reason the program's existence was withheld from Congress for several years. The reasoning was obvious; first, given Congress's penchant for leaks, the program would have been quickly "outed," before any terrorists could be eliminated. Secondly, both the agency and the Bush White House understood that Blackwater had become a political lightning rod, thanks to its high-profile security contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the firm's ties to Republican politicians.
In the end, the program never progressed beyond the discussion stage. No contract was ever signed, and the lack of a formal deal was one reason the venture was eventually cancelled.
But in our view, the enlistment of Blackwater is hardly a scandal. Indeed, the CIA has out-sourced direct action jobs at various points in its history, including an ill-fated collaboration with the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro. Besides, with "out-sourcing" all the rage in government circles, the agency can claim its simply was following the "best practices" of the federal bureaucracy.
If there is a scandal in this episode, it has little to do with Blackwater's participation and everything to do with CIA's waning skills in covert action. Once upon a time, if you needed a convenient coup or a bad guy eliminated, the agency could handle the job, on its own, and with no contractor assistance. Unfortunately, the agency's ability to carry out such missions has declined precipitously over the last 30 years, leaving CIA operatives leery about carrying out such assignments. With the threat of prosecution if something goes wrong, no wonder the agency was so anxious to bring Blackwater on board.
More distressingly, the CIA was supposed to expand and improve its covert operations skills under the organizational structure of the intelligence community. With the agency no longer in charge of our intelligence apparatus (and assuming a slightly lower profile in analytical matters), the CIA would be free to expand its operations directorate and replenish atrophied skills. Clearly that hasn't happened, or the pace of reform wasn't sufficient to allow the agency to undertake the direct action mission on its own.
Now, there's a real intelligence scandal for you. Years into the long war, the Central Intelligence Agency (apparently) lacks the resources to carry out a terrorist elimination mission without help from a contractor. You'd think someone on the House or Senate Intelligence Committees would be asking Leon Panetta--and his predecessors--about this lack of progress, but don't expect hearings anytime soon. Blackwater is a much more convenient target, and it avoids the larger issue of why the CIA can't locate bad guys on the ground and take the out.
That's an issue that begs an immediate answer, but unfortunately, no one is willing to ask the question. Our current crop of political leaders seem to be happy with the status quo, and so is Al Qaida.