By Nicholas Contompasis
"The cowboys have found a home and just could do the job better than the over scrutinized, over politicked C.I.A. There could be many problems with this, but for now they seem to be on our side. The world is getting more and more complex. Who do you trust, who can you trust, with so many moving parts how can one mind wrap itself around all of this and come up with an effect intelligence policy?"
When U.S. Said No, Private Spy Ring Fed Bloggers Instead
By Spencer Ackerman Borrowed from Wired - Thank you
Last May, author Brad Thor published a shocking report on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website claiming that Pakistani authorities had captured Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Other reporters didn’t bite on the story, which Thor attributed to “key intelligence sources in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Those sources, if a New York Times piece is correct, are the remnants of an off-the-books spy operation that the Pentagon shut down last year, now funded by entirely private cash.
Its activities are “something of a cross between a Graham Greene novel and Mad Magazine’s ‘Spy vs. Spy,‘” writes the Times‘ Mark Mazzetti. Run by former CIA operative Duane R. “Dewey” Clarridge, a team of Afghan, Pakistani and western private spies have tried to get Hamid Karzai’s beard trimmings to prove that the Afghan president is a drug addict. They’ve set up videos discrediting Karzai and his CIA-connected brother, the Kandahar-based quasi-warlord Ahmed Wali Karzai. And when they can’t sell U.S. military or intelligence officials on their product, they slip their intel to writers like Thor. Welcome to the new world of private intelligence, where spying, military operations, journalism, profit and hidden agendas intersect.
Through a mutual contact, Clarridge declined to comment for this post. But his case is fascinating. Like a lot of ex-CIA operatives, he considers his former agency a hidebound, bureaucratic mess that strikes Faustian bargains with untrustworthy proxies like the Karzai brothers. Judging from the Times piece, Clarridge — a pardoned Iran-Contra figure — believes the corrupt Karzais are ultimately going to sell the U.S. out to the Iranians and Pakistanis, and his private intel ring, the Eclipse Group, aims to do something about it.
“Get used to it, world,” Clarridge told a documentary, in a line practically destined for a Hollywood adaptation of the former spy’s career. “We’re not going to put up with nonsense.”
Enter the Pentagon. Defense Department official Michael Furlong hired Clarridge’s people to gather “atmospheric” information on Afghanistan in what became an off-the-books spy operation. Furlong denies that his hires ever got involved in operations to track or kill insurgents, and instead gathered information about political and security scuttlebutt in Afghanistan — a legitimate need, according to former top U.S. military intelligence officials. But the Pentagon shut down the effort last year and put Clarridge under criminal investigation for “unauthorized” intel collection.
The Pentagon contract was worth an estimated $6 million to Clarridge. He promptly got private backers, unnamed in the Times piece, to stake him and kept his intelligence business running. (His password-protected website is here, but it timed out for me.) A spokesman for his business, Eclipse, told Mazzetti, “Eclipse may possibly be an effective model for the future, providing information to officers and officials of the United States government who have the sole responsibility of acting on it or not.”
Mazzetti reports that Clarridge’s anti-Karzai activities probably aren’t illegal. There’s also nothing illegal — or even untoward — about Eclipse passing information to journalists. Karzai has backed off on a plan to crack down on contractors, but judging from the Clarridge-produced video below, he might make an exception:
The military doesn’t seem so hot on private spying anymore. A Pentagon spokesman told Mazzetti, “reliance on unvetted and uncorroborated information from private sources may endanger the force and taint information collected during legitimate intelligence operations.”
Maybe. But there’s no denying that there’s a market for any kind of information from confusing warzones like Afghanistan — among the public, among journalists, among diplomats and certainly among spies. Whether or not the government buys what Clarridge is selling, the San Diego-based ex-spy evidently understands that others will. If anything, his private spycraft is a complement to the privatized clandestine operations performed by companies like Blackwater. The difference between private intelligence rings like Clarridge’s and security consulting/analysis groups like Stratfor — which have their own networks of sources — is that Clarridge is trying to undermine the U.S.-Karzai relationship.
So is Clarridge’s group a kind of privatized effort to influence policy? Or is it an information-gathering troupe with a particular slant? Either way, if it’s successful, it’s going to inspire imitators. Whether its info is true or merely useful — where’s Mullah Omar? Is Karzai shooting up?– is something the market will have to sort out.