Did the Bush administration plot the assassination of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist generally blamed for giving the keys to the nuclear club to North Korea, then get cold feet? That's among the allegations in an article in the new issue of Vanity Fair that focuses on the CIA connections of Erik Prince, whose security firm Blackwater became synonomous with reckless adventurism in Iraq.
Prince isn't the source of the A.Q. Khan story -- the article's author, Adam Ciralski, cites an unnamed source -- but in talking about his role with the CIA Prince apparently indicates that the CIA's assassination program had gone much further than the Obama administration let on when it canceled the program earlier this year (here's a Washington Post story and another from McClatchy). Prince indicates the program had one notable success: the death of an al Qaida middle man in Syria. Prince says his Blackwater team found the man, but left the finishing work to the U.S. military.
Prince apparently is talking because he feels burned by congressional leaks about his company's role in the now canceled program. The press release is below. You can read the story here.
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: DECEMBER 2, 2009
VANITY FAIR BLACKWATER CHIEF ERIK PRINCE TELLS VANITY FAIR HE’S STEPPING DOWN, DISCUSSSES HIS ROLE IN THE C.I.A.’S TARGETED-ASSASSINATION PROGRAM
NEW YORK, N.Y. — Erik Prince, head of the military contractor Blackwater (renamed Xe in February) and recently outed as a participant in a C.I.A. assassination program, speaks to Vanity Fair writer Adam Ciralsky about his role in the program and his decision to leave the firm.
Prince, the wealthy, 40-year-old heir to an auto-parts fortune, reveals in the new issue of Vanity Fair that, after 12 years building Blackwater, he is resigning from the company and plans to turn it over to its employees and a board. “I’m through,” says Prince. “I’m going to teach high school. History and economics. I may even coach wrestling. Hey, Indiana Jones taught school, too.”
Prince, who says Blackwater now pays $2 million a month in legal bills to fight an array of investigations and charges ranging from bribing Iraqi officials to illegal arms shipments to murder (allegations which Prince and company spokesmen deny), expresses deep anger and resentment in the Vanity Fair story. “I put myself and my company at the C.I.A.’s disposal for some very risky missions,” Prince tells Ciralsky. “But when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus.”
Prince blames Congressional Democrats for revealing his role in the C.I.A. assassination plan. Ciralsky reports that two attendees at a confidential, closed-door Capitol Hill session last June with C.I.A. director Leon Panetta insist the director discussed Prince’s and Blackwater’s parts in the agency’s plan to lethally target al-Qaeda operatives and their allies. Soon thereafter, press accounts surfaced, disclosing Prince and his company’s involvement. (When asked to verify this account, C.I.A. spokesman Paul Gimigliano said, “Director Panetta treats as confidential discussions with Congress that take place behind closed doors.”)
“The left complained about how [C.I.A. operative] Valerie Plame’s identity was compromised for political reasons,” Prince tells Ciralsky. “A special prosecutor [was even] appointed. Well, what happened to me was worse. People acting for political reasons disclosed not only the existence of a very sensitive program but my name along with it.” Prince confesses that he felt betrayed. “I don’t understand how a program this sensitive leaks. And to ‘out’ me on top of it?”
Ciralsky reports that for the past six years, Prince has publicly served as Blackwater’s C.E.O. and chairman, while privately, and secretly, he has been doing the C.I.A.’s bidding, helping to craft, fund, and execute operations ranging from inserting personnel into “denied areas”—places U.S. intelligence has trouble penetrating—to assembling hit teams targeting al-Qaeda members and their allies.
According to sources with knowledge of his activities, Prince has been working as a C.I.A. asset, or spy. While Blackwater earned over $1.5 billion in government contracts between 2001 and 2009, Prince used his access to paramilitary forces, weapons, and aircraft, and his indefatigable ambition—the very attributes that have galvanized his critics—to become a “Mr. Fix-It” in the war on terror.
Ciralsky reports that Prince wasn’t merely a contractor; he was arguably a full-blown asset. Three sources with direct knowledge of the relationship say that the C.I.A.’s National Resources Division recruited Prince in 2004 to join a secret network of American citizens with special skills or unusual access to targets of interest. The C.I.A. won’t comment on this, but, Prince says, “I was looking at creating a small, focused capability, just like Donovan did years ago”—referencing William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who, in World War II, served as the head of the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the modern C.I.A. (Prince’s youngest son, Charles Donovan, is named after Wild Bill.)
Two sources familiar with the arrangement say that Prince’s handlers obtained provisional operational approval from senior management to recruit Prince and later generated a “201 file,” which would have put him on the agency’s books as a vetted asset. (Ironically enough, when al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. mainland on 9/11, Prince says, he felt the urge to join the C.I.A.—the very agency that would later woo him—and actually applied. “I was rejected. They said I didn’t have enough hard skills, enough time in the field.”)
According to two sources familiar with his work, Prince, after 9/11, began developing unconventional means of penetrating “hard target” countries—where the C.I.A. has great difficulty working, either because there are no stations from which to operate or because local intelligence services have the wherewithal to frustrate the agency’s designs.
The agency also turned to Prince when time came to train the members of their targeted-killing squad. The team practiced not at Blackwater’s North Carolina compound, but on a separate estate overseen by Prince, an hour outside Washington, D.C., reminiscent of the country estate where O.S.S. intelligence squads were trained during World War II. As Prince puts it, “We were building a unilateral, unattributable capability. If it went bad, we weren’t expecting the chief of station, the ambassador, or anyone to bail us out.”
Ciralsky reveals that the C.I.A. targeted-killing team, according to a source familiar with the program, went further than the agency has previously admitted. The source says they were dispatched to Hamburg, Germany, to surveil Mamoun Darkazanli—an al-Qaeda financier living in Hamburg—going in “dark,” meaning they did not notify their own station, much less the German government, of their presence; the team followed Darkanzali for weeks and worked through the logistics of how and where they would take him down. Another target, the source says, was A. Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani scientist who shared nuclear know-how with Iran, Libya, and North Korea. The C.I.A. team supposedly tracked him in Dubai. In both cases, the source insists, the authorities in Washington chose not to pull the trigger.
Khan’s inclusion on the target list, however, would suggest that the assassination effort was broader than has previously been acknowledged. (Says agency spokesman Gimigliano, “[The] C.I.A. hasn’t discussed —despite some mischaracterizations that have appeared in the public domain—the substance of this effort or earlier ones.”) Of the public comments that current and former C.I.A. officials have made, the source familiar with the Darkazanli and Khan missions tells Ciralsky, “They say the program didn’t move forward because they didn’t have the right skill set or because of inadequate cover. That’s untrue. They operated for a very long time in some places without ever being discovered. This program died because of a lack of political will.”
Prince tells Ciralsky he and a covert team also helped find and fix a target in October 2008, then left the finishing to others: “In Syria, we did the signals intelligence to geo-locate the bad guys in a very denied area.” Subsequently, a U.S. Special Forces team launched a helicopter-borne assault to hunt down al-Qaeda middleman Abu Ghadiyah. Ghadiyah, whose real name is Badran Turki Hishan Al-Mazidih, was said to have been killed along with six others.
Finally, Vanity Fair reports that up until two months ago—when Prince says the Obama administration pulled the plug—Prince, according to insiders, was running intelligence-gathering operations from a secret location in the U.S., remotely coordinating the movements of spies working undercover in one of the so-called Axis of Evil countries; their mission: non-disclosable.
Adam Ciralsky, an award-winning television producer, has received many of broadcast journalism's highest honors, including three Emmys (two for “news & documentary” and one for “business & financial reporting”), the Polk Award, the Peabody Award, and the Loeb Award. A former C.I.A. lawyer, his contract was not renewed under contentious circumstances in the 1990s before becoming a reporter for CBS and NBC News.
The January issue of Vanity Fair hits newsstands in New York and Los Angeles on December 2 and nationally on December 8.