Despite claims that the US military’s private spy operation in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been shut down, the program continues to run and is feeding information to the Pentagon “on an almost daily basis,” the New York Times reported Saturday.
Additionally, the private operation has ballooned from its original goal of collecting general information about the war-torn region and is now carrying out potentially illegal covert spy operations, the Times states.
In March, an investigative report by the Times uncovered the existence of a $22-million contract to outsource the collection of intelligence about the tribal areas of Pakistan. The news sparked controversy, with many observers concerned the US was handing over some of its most sensitive activities to private, unaccountable contractors.
According to that report, a US official identified as Michael Furlong organized a network of private contractors to run the intelligence operation. The original contract, which was signed in early 2009 and tasked contractor Lockheed Martin with managing the project, allowed the private spy ring to gather “atmospheric information” — general, broad data about the political and social circumstances in the area.
But that original mandate appears to have been expanded into a full-scale intelligence-gathering and covert activities operation. The Times reports:
The boundaries separating Ã¢â‚¬Å“atmosphericsÃ¢â‚¬Â 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.
[D]efense 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.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a review of the program following its revelation in March. A Pentagon official told the Times the review is still ongoing. The paper reports it has been told the private spy ring will be shut down at the end of May, but there is speculation the Pentagon is dragging its feet on ending it because it finds the program’s information useful.
The private contractor network was born in part out of frustration with the CIA and the military intelligence apparatus. There was a belief by some officers that the C.I.A. was too risk averse, too reliant on PakistanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s spy service and seldom able to provide the military with timely information to protect American troops….
The Times also raises concerns about Furlong, a civilian with ties to the military. Furlong has “a history of delving into outlandish intelligence schemes, including an episode in 2008, when American officials expelled him from Prague for trying to clandestinely set up computer servers for propaganda operations,” the Times reports.
In April, it was revealed that Furlong is under investigation for possibly having taken federal funds from an official program to study the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and used it to fund his covert spy ring.
The use of private contractors in war zones has become a contentious issue. While the use of security contractors such as Blackwater has been well documented, the Furlong spy ring appears to be the first documented case of a private, for-profit intelligence operation run for the US military.
Even some defense officials are worried about Ã¢â‚¬Å“private citizens running around a war zone, trying to collect intelligence that wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t properly vetted for operations that werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t properly coordinated,Ã¢â‚¬Â the Times reports.
In February, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced the “Stop Outsourcing Security Act.” If passed, the act would force the United States to phase out its controversial use of private security contractors in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.