A new report in the New York Times illustrates both the potential and the pitfalls (but mostly the latter) of espionage now being conducted for U.S. government interests, by private organizations instead of by government agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency. It seems that former CIA officer Duane Clarridge has set himself up in California as the head of what the Times calls a “private CIA,” known as the Eclipse Group. The Eclipse Group seems to be particularly active in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
At its height, Clarridge’s private espionage circle had hundreds of agents in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of them were targeting the Taliban and the Pakistani government; Clarridge believes that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence actually apprehended Taliban leader Mullah Omar some time ago and hasn’t yet told the Americans. However, he has also targeted what he believes are corrupt Afghan government officials, including Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of president Hamid Karzai. Ahmed Karzai is deeply involved in the country’s massive heroin trade, but Clarridge suspects he enjoys secret American protection because he is a CIA source.
Clarridge has a long history. He was a CIA operations officer during the 1907s and 1980s, when he is believed to have attempted to rig Italian governments, participated in the illegal mining of Nicaraguan harbors, and was implicated in the even more illegal Iran/Contra affair. He was pardoned mid-trial by the Bush Administration, escaping the convictions for perjury which were delivered to some of his Iran/Contra colleagues like John Poindexter and Oliver North. It seems he still holds to his views from that time period, though. In this chilling interview given several years ago, Clarridge can be seen explaining that massive and well-documented massacres of civilians following CIA-backed military coups against democratically elected governments in Chile and Guatemala are merely lies put out by Amnesty International, that the U.S. claims the right to invade other countries and unseat democratic governments whenever they want, that if we non-Americans don’t like it we can just “lump it,” and that we’d better like it because “we defend you”:
It’s important to realize that groups like this can’t easily function without the backing of a government or some other wealthy benefactor. Human intelligence (what the CIA does) is cheap compared to signals intelligence (what the National Security Agency does), but the key word there is compared. Running agents in a foreign country also requires that Clarridge be able to facilitate such things as large cash transfers, airfare and shipping, passports and similar papers, and (probably) small arms quickly and easily. It’s hard to imagine he could do all this without the support of the government.
This raises a very serious problem. Government intelligence agencies are subject to a degree of review and oversight, including Congressional committees, Inspectors-General, and, well after the fact, the Freedom of Information Act. They are required to follow certain laws. The Eclipse Group and similar organizations presumably feel no such obligations — yet the product of their work is (or at least has been) given to the U.S. government for use as finished intelligence anyways. Most informed observers agree that the federal intelligence agencies are hampered by internal bureaucracy and that outside oversight is ineffectual at best — but turning to private groups like Clarridge’s merely compounds the problem by eliminating even the potential for proper oversight and democratic accountability.
Indeed, the very contract by which Clarridge began working for the government is evidence of how easy it is to slip to the wrong side of the law. In theory, the Neutrality Act prohibits subserting foreign governments, although it is usually only enforced against paramilitary and mercenary groups, not spies. Still, their DoD contact was obviously concerned:
[In 2009], the security firm that Mr. Clarridge was affiliated with, the American International Security Corporation, won a Pentagon contract ultimately worth about $6 million. American officials said the contract was arranged by Michael D. Furlong, a senior Defense Department civilian with a military “information warfare” command in San Antonio.
To get around a Pentagon ban on hiring contractors as spies…, Mr. Furlong’s team simply rebranded their activities as “atmospheric information” rather than “intelligence.”
To be clear, this isn’t just a minor bookkeeping issue: that would be fraudulently keeping false documentation.
For the moment, this concern may be a secondary one. In May 2010, Clarridge apparently lost his contract with the Department of Defense and had to lay off 200 personnel then active in central Asia. Clarridge obviously does not expect to reactivate that particular operation: he spoke freely with the Times about its targets, and evidently even shared a number of his intelligence reports with the newspaper. The paper hints that he still maintains contact with some of his sources via email, and Clarridge says he approached tried to sidestep the defense bureaucracy by taking his work straight to Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. However, one suspects he would have been more circumspect if there was much of highly sensitive value in his operation. Still, the prospect of private covert intelligence groups operating at the will of the U.S. government does raise disturbing questions about secrecy and accountability.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that Clarridge’s group is probably one of several private intelligence groups being employed by the military in Asia. Last year his name first surfaced in the New York Times when he died being one of several former intelligence and special forces officers receiving money out of a $22 million intelligence contracting pool operated by Furlong:
Among the contractors Mr. Furlong appears to have used to conduct intelligence gathering was International Media Ventures, a private “strategic communications” firm run by several Special Operations officers. Another was American International Security Corporation, a Boston-based company run by Mike Taylor, a former Green Beret… Mr. Taylor said that at one point he had employed Duane Clarridge…
Some of the approximately $22 million in government money allotted to this effort went to International Media Ventures, with offices in St. Petersburg, Fla., San Antonion and elsewhere. On its Web site, the company describes itself as a public relations company, “an industry leader in creating potent messaging content and interactive communications.” The Web site also shows that several of its senior executives are former members of the military’s Special Operations forces, including former commandos from Delta Force… Until recently, one of the members of International Media’s board of directors was Gen. Dell L. Dailey, former head of Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the military’s covert units.
Collectively, Furlong reportedly referred to his stable of private spooks as “my Jason Bournes.”Tweet