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Blackwater’s Secret War in Pakistan: Jeremy Scahill Reveals Private Military Firm Operating in Pakistan under Covert Assassination and Kidnapping Program

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In an explosive new article in The Nation magazine, investigative journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill reveals the private military firm Blackwater is part of a covert program in Pakistan that includes planning the assassination and kidnapping of Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects. Blackwater is also said to be involved in a previously undisclosed US military drone campaign that has killed scores of people inside Pakistan. The article says the program has become so secretive that top Obama administration and military officials have likely been unaware of its existence. In a Democracy Now! exclusive, Scahill joins us for his first interview since the story broke. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we open the show differently. Because of time constraints, we’ll have the day’s top headlines after our first segment, an explosive new story about the private military firm Blackwater.

Writing in The Nation magazine, journalist Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now! correspondent, has revealed Blackwater is secretly operating in Pakistan under a covert program that includes planning the assassination and kidnapping of Taliban and al-Qaeda suspects. Blackwater is also said to be involved in a previously undisclosed US military drone campaign that has killed scores of people inside Pakistan. Blackwater operatives have been working under a covert program run by the Joint Special Operations Command, the military’s top covert operations force. The previously undisclosed JSOC operations would mark the first known confirmation of US military activity inside Pakistan.

A military intelligence source said Blackwater operatives are effectively running the drone bombings for both JSOC and the CIA. The CIA drone program is already public knowledge. But the military source says some of the deadliest drone attacks attributed to the CIA were actually carried out by JSOC. The article also reveals Blackwater operatives have taken part in ground operations with Pakistani forces under a subcontract with a local security firm. The operations have included house raids and border interdictions in northwest Pakistan and other areas. Blackwater has also been given responsibility for planning JSOC operations in Uzbekistan. The Nation reports the program has become so secretive the top Obama administration and military officials have likely been unaware of its existence.

Independent journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill broke the story for The Nation magazine. He joins us now in our New York studio for his first television interview since the article’s publication last night.

Jeremy, welcome to Democracy Now! Lay out what you have learned so far.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Amy, just by way of background, we do know that, beginning in 2006, the Bush administration struck a deal with the Pakistani government that would allow US special operations forces from the Joint Special Operations Command to enter Pakistan with the understanding that they were, quote, “following the target,” and the target being Osama bin Laden and his top deputies. As part of that agreement, the Pakistani government insisted that they have the right to, A, deny that the United States had permission to enter the country, and B, be able to condemn US actions in their country as a sort of violation of their sovereignty. But the understanding was struck in 2006.

What I understand now from a military intelligence source, and another US military source that confirmed what I was initially told by the military intelligence source, is that in fact there are active covert operations on an ongoing basis that are not just about targeting Osama bin Laden. What we understand now is that the Joint Special Operations Command, which from 2003 to 2008 was headed by General Stanley McChrystal, who now has been promoted and is the head of all US forces and NATO forces in Afghanistan and is pushing for a very large troop increase, he ran that program from 2003 to 2008. Now it’s being headed by Admiral William McRaven, who’s the head of all JSOC operations. So you have, on the one hand, the allegation from these military sources that JSOC has covert bases throughout Pakistan, that they are running a drone bombing campaign that runs parallel to that of the CIA, and that Blackwater forces have been at the center of this operation, according to my sources, since at least 2007. And as part of the work that they’re doing for JSOC in Pakistan, I’m told, they are essentially an intelligence cell, if you will, that is planning strikes, gathering intelligence, as well as planning operations inside of Uzbekistan against the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. My sources said that when they are working, when the Blackwater guys that work for an elite division of the company that has been known as Blackwater Select, that they’re not doing the actual killing in these operations, but rather they’re doing the planning of these operations.

And Amy, what this really is is an outgrowth of a trend that we saw very early on in the Bush administration following September 11th, where the Vice President, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld circumvented the military chain of command, went directly into JSOC, and essentially separated JSOC from the military and started using JSOC to commit what my source said were some of the darkest acts. They also set up a parallel agency to the CIA that was called the Strategic Support Branch, the SSB. The SSB culled information resources from the CIA and the DIA, but for the first time took the realm of covert operations out of the exclusive hands of the CIA and essentially created a parallel clandestine force that would report directly to Rumsfeld and directly to Cheney. And this Blackwater program is an outgrowth of that separating of JSOC from the broader military chain of command, and that’s why my sources say that there are senior figures within the military and within the administration right now that may be unaware of it, because, as he said, they are not in the “circle of love.”

AMY GOODMAN: Not in the circle of love?

JEREMY SCAHILL: That’s the phrase that was used twice by the military intelligence source that I spoke to.

What we’re seeing now — and I also talked to Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who was the Chief of Staff to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. And he described — he, first of all, when I talked to him about this, said that the program would not surprise him and that he was very disturbed when he sees execute orders that are coming out saying that JSOC is essentially above the Special Operations Command and that the Special Operations Command is essentially in a support role for these JSOC teams. So, what I’m told is that this program is so compartmentalized that there are probably very top-level people that are unaware of it.

And, in fact, what my military intelligence source says is that Blackwater personnel that are working as part of this program, and have worked as part of this program, have been given rolling security clearances above their actual security clearance. And let me break that down a minute. You have guys that can work on these operations that maybe have a low level of security clearance in terms of the amount of intelligence that they’re able to see. What this program allows for is these individuals to be given temporary security clearances to have access to very sensitive intelligence, intelligence that even members of Congress that oversee intelligence matters don’t have access to. And that was one of the things that concerned the individuals that spoke with me for this story.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, what has been the response of Blackwater? What has been the response of the US military, the White House, to these — to your investigation?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Blackwater said to me in a statement — and I had several back-and-forths with Blackwater spokesperson Mark Corallo, and what Blackwater told me is that Xe Services, which is one of the new iterations of Blackwater, has only one, quote, “employee” in Pakistan. And as I kept writing them back and saying, “What about contractors, subcontractors, affiliates, other names that I wouldn’t be aware of?” they said, “We have no operations whatsoever inside of Pakistan.” My sources say that that’s not true.

I also received a call yesterday, as I was going to press, from individuals that I had not called. I received a call from Admiral Mike Mullen’s office, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was a bit surprising to me, because I hadn’t called Admiral Mullen’s office. So when a US citizen gets a call from the military, especially from the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it’s a bit jolting. And they wouldn’t tell me how they got wind of the fact that I was doing this story or how they got my number. But I spoke to the spokesperson for Admiral Mullen, who told me that they do not comment on current operations one way or the other. I was also told by a defense official, on background, not for attribution of the name of the individual, that this is not true, that there is no current arrangement with Blackwater for these types of services, and that there never has been.

The White House did not return emails or phone calls in the process of doing this story.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, you point out in your article that the US corporate media has largely ignored the fear and mistrust that Blackwater has generated in Pakistan. Earlier this month, the Taliban played on those fears when it denied responsibility for several bombings and in fact accused Blackwater of carrying them out. This is Azam Tariq, a spokesman of the Tehrik-i-Taliban.

    AZAM TARIQ: [translated] I want to tell the people of Pakistan and the Muslim nation that the Tehrik-i-Taliban are not responsible for the bombings, but Blackwater and Pakistan’s spy agency are behind them. Those who fight with the Americans are against the Tehrik-i-Taliban and have blood on their hands, and we will fight them to the end.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, your response?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, you always have to take these kinds of declarations with a grain of salt. I mean, there’s incredible propaganda, and I don’t have any evidence to suggest that what that man is saying is true. But I will say this, that the Pakistani Intelligence Services have long had a reputation for using proxy forces to carry out actions that ultimately are sanctioned by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. So, there certainly is a history in Pakistan of false flag operations. But I don’t have any actual information or intelligence on the claims of the Taliban. But certainly, people that have closely monitored and followed Pakistani politics, particularly the history of the ISI and other organizations, they are regularly involved with unsavory organizations that I think are classified by many individuals as terrorist organizations. So, what we’re seeing in Pakistan right now is certainly a situation where the Pakistani Intelligence Services are playing multiple sides of the equation, and I think that it would be very difficult to rule out Pakistani intelligence from much of anything in Pakistan these days.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, talk about who Blackwater is working for, or working with, in Pakistan. Again, of course, Pakistan a country the United States has not declared war on.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, one interesting thing that happened in the course of this story is that I talked to a former Blackwater executive that is familiar with Blackwater’s operations in the region. And when I asked him to confirm for me what the military intelligence source had said, namely that the Blackwater guys are not doing the actual killing in Pakistan, he told me, quote, “That’s not entirely accurate,” and then proceeded to tell me about an arrangement that Blackwater had made with a Pakistani company called Kestrel, that is headed by a man named Ali Baig.

And the Blackwater executive told me that Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater, is close with the owner of this Pakistani firm that is sort of like a Blackwater and logistical firm wrapped up into one. This is a company that works for Lockheed Martin and Raytheon and the Pakistani government and does a very robust business in war contracting and servicing the war in Afghanistan, as well. And my understanding is that Blackwater is working for this company on a subcontract in a configuration that has Blackwater operatives going out as —- technically as advisers with these paramilitary-style forces from this company, and that they are doing, as you said in the intro, border interdictions in the North-West Frontier Province and elsewhere. And the former Blackwater executive told me that the line often gets blurred and that you do have Blackwater guys and other Westerners that actually participate in operations that are then portrayed in the international media as Pakistani forces carrying them out.

And the agency that Blackwater forces are supporting is a federal paramilitary force in Pakistan that’s under the Ministry of the Interior there, called the Frontier Corps. The military intelligence official confirmed the Blackwater executive’s account, or at least the specific allegation that Blackwater is working with the Frontier Corps. And the benefit of this, in the words of the former Blackwater executive, is that it allows the Pakistani government to say, “We’re not using any Western forces to do these things,” because the technicality is that they are subcontracted by a Pakistani firm that is working with official Pakistani forces.

AMY GOODMAN: The lobbyist for Kestrel you report?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I’m sorry, Amy, I didn’t hear you.

AMY GOODMAN: The lobbyist for Kestrel you report, the assistant -—

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, yeah, you’ve actually done shows on this individual. He’s sort of a famed neocon and a former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, who is well known to Democracy Now! listeners. In October, Roger Noriega was hired as a lobbyist by this Pakistani company. They paid his firm VisionAmericas $15,000. They paid another firm that appears to be little more than an affiliate of Roger Noriega’s firm, called Firecreek Limited, an equal amount of money to lobby the State Department, USAID, the Congress, on defense and foreign policy issues and on services that Kestrel could provide that are of interest to the US government.

Another player at Roger Noriega’s firm VisionAmericas is Christina Rocca, who for years during the Bush administration was one of the top people shaping Pakistan and Afghanistan policies. She’s a former CIA operations official. So, this company has hired some pretty powerhouse figures that have a long history, in the case of Christina Rocca’s affiliation with VisionAmericas, with Pakistan directly. So it all sort of leads toward this continued neoconservative view of US foreign policy, and they picked some of the top people in that world to become their K Street lobbyists.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, explain who is behind the drone attacks in Pakistan, who has been killed, and talk about legality here.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, the CIA, of course, has been running a drone campaign in Pakistan going back years into the Bush administration. When President Obama took office on January 23rd, he ordered his first drone strike inside of Pakistan — there were two strikes in North and South Waziristan — and has bombed Pakistan regularly ever since. In fact, Vice President Joe Biden, part of his strategy, reportedly, is calling for an escalation of these drone strikes. This has caused some controversy, because there have been large numbers of civilian deaths as a result of these bombings. And technically, the operations of the CIA need to be reported to Senator Dianne Feinstein and others on the Intelligence Committee. And there was a controversy this summer because Leon Panetta ran up to the Hill and said that he had cancelled the CIA assassination program, and that sort of put drones in an intense focus on the Hill.

What I am told now, though, is that there is actually, and has been for some time, a parallel drone strike program that is being run by the Joint Special Operations Command and that these JSOC drone strikes are sometimes done with very little regard for how many civilians may die in the pursuit of one, quote-unquote, “bad guy.” In fact, my military intelligence source said to me, if there is one guy that we’re trying to hit and there are thirty-four other people in the building, thirty-five people are going to die that day. And he said that part of the reason why these strikes are happening is because JSOC works on a classified mandate, and they really don’t care, because they’re not going to go to the Hill and talk to Congress about it, and they’re not going to face any consequences. And it’s an open secret that no one wants to talk about.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, you say that Blackwater employees may be posing as USAID workers?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I said that they may be posting as aid workers. I didn’t specify any organization. I think that we have a situation right now in Pakistan where it is very dangerous for people that actually are there to aid in humanitarian projects, and this has long been a history. When you have non-civilian forces that pose in any way as aid workers of any kind, I think you create a very dangerous situation for the very well-meaning individuals that go to very difficult and dangerous countries in an effort to help local populations that are suffering tremendously as a result of war and poverty. And my understanding from the military intelligence source is that Blackwater personnel have at times posed as aid workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Word is that President Obama is now going to be announcing the expansion of war in Afghanistan, over 30,000 US troops. Can you put this all, your exposé, in a broader context?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, of course, you have — right now you have the top two figures running, prosecuting the Afghan war, from the military side, are both from the Joint Special Operations Command. And I think that what we’re seeing is essentially an incredible rise of the power of JSOC within the official military command structure. I think what we’re seeing is the beginning of a — what is going to be a much more dramatic escalation of forces in Afghanistan, because my understanding is that, as part of the President’s plan that he’s authorizing, there’s essentially going to be an equal number of contractors that are deployed along those 30,000 or so troops that we now understand the President is going to be announcing.

But of great concern, I think, to everyone in that region is that Pakistan is increasingly — the war in Afghanistan is increasingly bleeding over into Pakistan. And now, with the revelation that the US has actual covert operations there, these operations could be viewed, in the words of my military intelligence source, as a lily pad, a jump-off point. He called it the Jamestown of the new millennium, in Pakistan, and predicted that there’s going to be more intense involvement of the US military within the borders of a country that we have not declared war against.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, I want to thank you for being with us, for breaking this in the national broadcast on Democracy Now! Your piece came out in The Nation magazine last night online, and of course we will link to it. Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent, and is a Puffin fellow at The Nation magazine.

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