The New York Times reported this morning that an off-the-books intelligence operation may be assassinating people in Pakistan with the help of a sketchy former spook—the same guy that the Times hired to save reporter David Rohde's life.
Dexter Filkins and Mark Mazzetti's Page One story on a secret contractor-run intelligence program in Afghanistan and Pakistan offers a weird view into the intersection of the media business and the world of spycraft, not to mention the hazards of a newspaper like the Times hiring a private army led by an arguably crazy ex-spy.
The story recounts the development of a "network of private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help track and kill suspected militants" that operated under the cover of "a benign government information-gathering program," and Mazzetti and Filkins refer darkly to the involvement a legendary former CIA operative named Duane "Dewey" Clarridge as evidence that something was fishy about the whole thing. They describe Clarridge as "a former top C.I.A. official who has been linked to a generation of C.I.A. adventures, including the Iran-Contra scandal," which is a nicer way of saying Clarridge was involved in the illegal mining of Nicaraguan harbors and indicted in 1991 for lying to Congress about arms shipments to Iran (he was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush in 1992). Clarridge is a legendary old spook in intelligence circles, and the Times says the Defense Department official who ran the program "would occasionally brag to his superiors about having Mr. Clarridge's services at his disposal."
As the story discloses, the Times once also had Clarridge's services at its disposal. He was hired, through his employer American International Security Corporation, in 2008 to secure the release of kidnapped Times reporter David Rohde from his Taliban captors in Pakistan. When Rohde was first kidnapped, the Times and its insurer AIG sought out a security firm called Clayton Consultants to handle the case. Clayton's strategy, and expertise from prior cases it had worked on, was to negotiate a ransom. But after negotiations stalled, Rohde's family became anxious and insisted that the Times pursue a dual-track approach: Clayton would continue the ransom route, but the Times also hired AISC and Clarridge to prepare a paramilitary snatch-and-grab operation. A team assembled by Clarridge was at one point suited up and ready to assault a location where they believed Rohde was being held, according to New York magazine, but the operation was called off at the last minute.
Rohde and his translator Tahir Ludin eventually escaped on their own in June of last year. But Clarridge soon began causing headaches for the Times. He freely talked to reporters off the record—ABC News' Brian Ross is said to be in regular contact with him—and began spreading rumors that the story of Rohde's escape was a sham. Ross and New York both reported that contractors hired by the Times had paid bribes to Rohde's guards, contradicting the Times' claims that it had paid no ransom and suggesting that Rohde's escape was a planned operation. According to one contractor who worked on Rohde's case, Clarridge was inflating his role in facilitating Rohde's escape in an effort to justify AISC's enormous fees. The contractor says Clarridge routinely supplied inaccurate intelligence about Rohde's whereabouts—on the day Rohde escaped from a safehouse in Miram Shah, Waziristan, the source said, Clarridge was claiming that he was being held in an entirely different location.
The rumor campaign against the Times culminated in a series of Twitter posts by independent warblogger Michael Yon, who caused a stir in November by writing that "ex-CIA officers helped pay off release for Rohde" to the tune of "millions" of dollars. Yon's claims attracted a flurry of attention, and Rohde responded that he would "never have written a five-part series [detailing his captivity and escape] based on a lie." In December, in response to inquiries from Gawker, Rohde wrote that "money was paid to individuals who claimed to know our whereabouts, but I do not believe that the guards who lived with us were bribed. As I have repeatedly said, our guards did not help us during our escape. In addition, no one has been able to name the guards who lived with us."
According to one Times insider, the paper suspected Clarridge was behind the rumors and confronted him, but took him at his word when he denied it. "There's no ill will toward Clarridge," the insider says. "Getting accurate information out of the tribal areas is extraordinarily difficult." But another source familiar with Clarridge's involvement in the Rohde episode says the Times was furious, and threatened in December to withhold payment from AISC, claiming that the leaks and rumors constituted a violation of the contract. AISC, the source says, was considering legal action against the paper.
The tension seems to have defused, however. Reached at his home in California, Clarridge told Gawker that the Times and AISC "came to some sort of a negotiated settlement," before declining to answer further questions for the record. A Times spokesman says "We have no billing dispute with AISC, and AISC has no billing dispute with us." And the Times insider insists that the dispute was "about money and hours," not any involvement Clarridge may have had with the bribery rumors.
Clarridge, who is in his late 70s, is a strange man, and has a reputation among reporters who have spoken to him of making outrageous and contradictory statements. In September 2009, he sent a political screed via e-mail, obtained by Gawker, to a wide contact list under the subject heading "Senator McCarthy Was Right." In it, he complained of the influence of "far left vermin (FLV) as they are known in the bug business" and hailed the imminent right-wing insurrection: "We won the Cold War; now we will win The War of the Authoritarians, which will be a civil war in the USA and such catastrophes are always exquisitely nasty."
The prospect of the Department of Defense hiring an indicted perjurer who advocates "civil war in the USA" to run an off-the-books intelligence operation is strange enough without adding in his prior ugly entanglement with the New York Times. The fact that it was the Times itself who blew the lid off his involvement makes the whole thing unbelievably incestuous. (The Times insider, for what it's worth, says the story was not motivated by a vendetta against Clarridge: "He came up very late in the reporting, and once he did, we had to put him in there with a disclosure of his previous involvement with the Times.")
The program started with an idea from, of all people, former CNN executive and Sharon Stone-dater Eason Jordan. He proposed a DOD-funded web site, similar to his post-CNN project Iraq Slogger, that would cover Afghanistan and Pakistan. The DOD loved the idea and funded it to the tune of $22 million, but the money was diverted, the Times says, to the secret intelligence network by Michael Furlong, a DOD official and former
Army officer with "extensive experience in psychological operations." Jordan's web site, Afpax, did get off the ground, but he says he only received two slight payments from the DOD funding the work. The rest of the money allocated for the project went somewhere else—presumably to the secret network.
It wasn't Jordan's first run-in with psy-ops. While he was in charge of newsgathering for CNN, the network invited active duty psy-ops operatives with the Army to intern in its Atlanta headquarters. "Psyops personnel, soldiers, and officers, have been working in CNN's headquarters in Atlanta through our program ‘Training With Industry,'" an Army spokesperson admitted in 2000. The program was immediately discontinued once people figured out that it's not such a good idea to invite professional liars to help deliver cable news and study how to better lie to news organizations. So he probably should have known better.
CLARIFICATION: The Times originally identified Furlong as a retired Air Force officer, which we repeated. Furlong is a retired Army officer, and the Times has corrected its story.
CLARIFICATION II: Jordan wrote in to object to our characterization of him having "invited" psy-ops personnel to intern at CNN:
In your report "The Spy Who Wronged Me," you wrote: "While he (Eason Jordan) was in charge of newsgathering for CNN, he invited active duty psy-ops operatives with the Army to intern in CNN's Atlanta headquarters."
That statement is false, as this CNN statement made clear at the time. The day I learned of the existence of that CNN internship program overseen by the human resources department, I ordered the program ended immediately. I never issued the invitation you claim. In fairness, I ask that you correct your error immediately.
The psy-ops episode happened under Jordan's watch, and he ought to bear responsibility for it. We've changed the post to reflect that it was CNN, and not Jordan personally, who allowed military personnel into the newsroom that Jordan ostensibly oversaw.