U.S. is still using private spy ring, despite doubts

The New York Times reports on a secret network of private spies who have produced hundreds of reports from deep inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, despite concerns among some in the military about the legality of the operation.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Pentagon has used broad interpretations of its authorities to expand military intelligence operations, including sending Special Operations troops on clandestine missions far from declared war zones. These missions have raised concerns in Washington that the Pentagon is running de facto covert actions without proper White House authority and with little oversight from the elaborate system of Congressional committees and internal controls intended to prevent abuses in intelligence gathering.

The officials say the contractors’ reports are delivered via an encrypted e-mail service to a “fusion cell,” located at the military base at Kabul International Airport. There, they are fed into classified military computer networks, then used for future military operations or intelligence reports.

To skirt military restrictions on intelligence gathering, information the contractors gather in eastern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas is specifically labeled “atmospheric collection”: information about the workings of militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan or about Afghan tribal structures. The boundaries separating “atmospherics” from what spies gather is murky. It is generally considered illegal for the military to run organized operations aimed at penetrating enemy organizations with covert agents.

But defense officials with knowledge of the program said that contractors themselves regarded the contract as permission to spy. Several weeks ago, one of the contractors reported on Taliban militants massing near American military bases east of Kandahar. Not long afterward, Apache gunships arrived at the scene to disperse and kill the militants.

The web of private businesses working under the Lockheed contract include Strategic Influence Alternatives, American International Security Corporation and International Media Ventures, a communications company based in St. Petersburg, Fla., with Czech ownership.

One of the companies employs a network of Americans, Afghans and Pakistanis run by Duane Clarridge, a C.I.A. veteran who became famous for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

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