Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein said Thursday the CIA broke the law by failing to notify Congress about a secret assassination program.
Feinstein’s comments were made in response to a report published in the New York Times Wednesday stating that in 2004 the CIA outsourced the assassination program, aimed at targeting al-Qaeda leaders, to security firm Blackwater, now known as Xe, a company whose former chief executive was recently accused of murder. To date, Blackwater has received more than $1.2 billion in government contracts.
She said despite assertions by Republican lawmakers and CIA officials that the program was never operational, it had, “in fact gone beyond the simple planning stage.”
A report published in the Los Angeles Times Thursday said the CIA “delivered a report to Congress earlier this month after conducting an internal probe of the program, which was first launched after the Sept. 11 attacks but was canceled and restarted several times under different regimes at the agency.”
She said it was now “clear” to her that the “failure to notify” Congress about the program, which lawmakers on the House and Senate intelligence committees first learned about in June during a closed-door meeting with CIA Director Leon Panetta, “constituted a violation of law.”
Feinstein is the first lawmaker to state unequivocally that the CIA broke the law by failing to inform Congress about the covert program, which was concealed from Congress for nearly eight years.
While Feinstein would not comment on the specific revelations contained in the New York Times report, she said she has “believed for a long time that the Intelligence Community is over-reliant on contractors to carry out its work. This is especially a problem when contractors are used to carry out activities that are inherently governmental.”
“The program was never briefed to the Congress before June despite a clear requirement in law to keep the intelligence committees ‘fully and currently informed,’” she said.
“That’s a big problem and it should never ever happen again,” Feinstein said. “Every single intelligence operation and covert action must be briefed to the Congress. If they are not, that is a violation of the law.”
News reports said Panetta told the Intelligence Committee that Vice President Dick Cheney advised the agency not to disclose details of the program to Congress.
Feinstein, whose committee is currently conducting an investigation of the CIA’s interrogation program to determine whether the torture of high-level detainees produced any actionable intelligence, added that her panel has included a provision in the 2010 Intelligence Authorization Bill that “clearly states that there is no exception to the legal requirement to notify Congress.”
In July, the House Intelligence Committee launched an investigation to determine if the CIA violated federal law, “including the National Security Act of 1947″ by withholding details of the program from Congress.
Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes said the probe would be part of a wide-ranging investigation about the way in which the CIA informs Congress about its covert activities and other matters.
Blackwater was reportedly paid millions of dollars to train CIA operatives to assassinate and kill leaders of al-Qaeda, according to reports late Wednesday in the New York Times and Washington Post.
According to the Los Angeles Times report, the CIA “did not have a formal contract with Blackwater in connection with the targeted-killing program. Instead, the agency hired the company’s founder, Erik D. Prince, a former Navy SEAL team member, and other Blackwater executives to help turn an idea for forming Al Qaeda hit squads into an operational program.”
“The effort ranged from consulting with top executives to carrying out training exercises at Blackwater’s headquarters in North Carolina. Company officials did not respond to requests for comment.”
Blackwater has long been the target of Democratic lawmakers over its controversial security and business practices.
Wrongfully Awarded Contracts
In July 2008, the Inspector General of the Small Business Administration (SBA) released a report that said Blackwater misrepresented the size of its firm so it could receive more than $100 million in small business contracts from the federal government.
The report said the mercenary outfit obtained a total of 39 contracts intended for small businesses with annual revenues of $6.5 million between 2005 and 2007. But the report said Blackwater’s revenue surpassed $200 million for those years.
Blackwater “obtained a total of 33 contracts during Fiscal Years 2005 through 2007, totaling $2,188,620, which may have involved misrepresentations to obtain the contract.”
The report also found that “it is possible that misrepresentations took place” on the remaining six contracts, totaling $107,311,356.”
Of the 39 contracts reviewed, 38 were awarded by the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded one. The Inspector General’s report says the small business contracts “could have involved potential misrepresentations by Blackwater.
Moreover, the Department of Defense wrongfully awarded Blackwater aviation contracts worth $107 million. That contract was earmarked for companies with annual revenues of less than $25 million or less than 1,500 employees, the report said.
The report was prepared at the request of Congressman Henry Waxman, who at the time was the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Waxman sent a letter in March 2008 to Steven Preseton, the administrator of the Small Business Administration.
“As part of the Oversight Committee’s investigation into the business practices of Blackwater Worldwide, the Committee has obtained evidence indicating that Blackwater may have applied for and received federal contracts by improperly claiming that it was eligible for small business preferences,” Waxman’s March 10, 2008 letter said. “It appears Blackwater sought these small business contracts by improperly designating its security guards as “independent contractors” rather than “employees.”
The Inspector General’s 27-page report released Monday said Blackwater appeared to have improperly classified its guards stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan as independent contracts as opposed to full-fledged employees in order to obtain government contracts.
According to a memo issued by Waxman to Oversight Committee members Monday, “The key issue… was whether personnel hired by Blackwater to provide security services for the Department of State (DOS) and other agencies were Blackwater employees . . . or independent contractors.”
“In claiming it was a small business, Blackwater argued that 1,000 security personnel it provided under the State Department’s $1.2 billion Worldwide Personal Protective Service (WPPS) contract were independent contractors,” Waxman’s memo says. “The [Small Business Administration Inspector General] reports that Blackwater claimed that it “had little or no knowledge of the activities of the security personnel performing the contract and exercised little or no supervision over these personnel once they were deployed.”
The report “concludes that these assertions were incorrect,” Waxman’s memo says.
The Inspector General’s report says “Our review of the WPPS Statement of Work indicates that it contained a number of provisions that appeared to be inconsistent with SBA’s conclusion that Blackwater did not have knowledge about the actions of the personnel once they were deployed.”
Target of Controversy
Last December, five Blackwater security guards were indicted on manslaughter charges over the massacre of 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. The Iraq government also stripped the company of its security license. The publicity reached such negative proportions that Blackwater sought to reinvent itself under a new name: Xe.
Recently, a Blackwater employee and a former ex-Marine employed by the company in a security capacity said in a sworn affidavit filed Aug. 3 in a federal court in Virginia, that company CEO Erik Prince may have murdered or assisted in the murder of individuals who were cooperating with federal law enforcement authorities investigation the company.
The explosive allegations, which also include claims the company was involved in the distribution of controlled substances, tax evasion, child prostitution, were made in a civil lawsuit filed against Blackwater that charges the company with Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) violations.
The company was also under federal investigation and was expected to be slapped with nearly $2 million in fines last Novemeber by the State Department for shipping about 900 weapons to law enforcement facilities in Iraq and Jordan without authorization. The weapons, however, ended up on the black market. It’s unclear whether the company was in fact fined or faced other charges. There does not appear to be additional information available about the weapons smuggling case beyond the reports of expected fines.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers continue to downplay new reports about the CIA’S assassination program and criticized Panetta’s decision to end the program.
Sen. Pete Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, accused Feinstein and other Democrats of engaging in “partisan, political theater” for launching a probe to determine if the CIA broke the law by not informing Congress about the program.