WASHINGTON – The recent deaths of two paramilitary operatives tracking terrorists in Afghanistan opened a small window into one of the CIA’s secret methods in fighting the war on terror: using guns-for-hire.
The agency has turned more frequently to contractors — often retired Green Berets or Navy SEALs — as it has worked to rapidly expand its covert paramilitary force, boosted by a big increase in funding in the two years since the Sept. 11 attacks.
William Carlson and Christopher Glenn Mueller were retired military commandos hired by the CIA as contractors to hunt al-Qaida and Taliban fighters near Shkin, in the wilds of eastern Afghanistan. They died Oct. 25 when they were ambushed while taking part in a larger military offensive in the area.
It appears they were hired by the CIA during the rapid growth of the agency’s covert paramilitary force after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They were among an undisclosed number of former special operators hired to augment the CIA’s own employees.
Johnny “Mike” Spann, the first American killed in combat in Afghanistan, in November 2001, was one such CIA employee. The size of the agency’s paramilitary force remains classified.
The CIA acknowledged Carlson and Mueller’s deaths and their ties to the agency in a statement three days after the shooting. Carlson, 43, and Mueller, 32, “were no strangers to the hardships of service to country,” said CIA Director George J. Tenet. Carlson was retired from Army special operations and Mueller from Navy special operations.
The two “were tracking terrorists operating in the region,” the CIA said. But it offered few details about the shooting or the men’s activities in Afghanistan.
Hiring contractors to boost the paramilitary force gives both the CIA and the individuals who are hired more flexibility, according to intelligence experts outside the agency. The operators can accept short-term assignments, and then go home to their families when they are finished.
On the CIA’s part, the current heavy use of contractors is probably a product of the large, one-time cash infusion the agency is receiving from Congress to fight the war on terrorism, said Steven Aftergood, an intelligence expert with the watchdog Federation of American Scientists in Washington.
“All indications are that reliance on contractors is growing,” Aftergood said. “What do you do if somebody drops hundreds of millions of dollars in your lap? You hire contractors on a short-term basis. You have no assurance it will be part of your budget next year.”
The CIA’s paramilitary arm, a unit called the Special Operations Group, is called upon when the president authorizes covert action in a secret “finding” that is reported to senior congressional leaders. One such finding, signed by former President Clinton and vastly expanded by President Bush, governs the covert war on the al-Qaida terrorist network.
But some analysts wonder whether the activities of CIA contractors are subject to proper oversight from both the CIA and Congress.
“It’s important for the oversight committees (in the House and Senate) to keep track of what the paramilitary people are doing,” said CIA expert Loch Johnson, a University of Georgia professor.
He worried about the agency turning to contractors, even retired military special operators, “who don’t really understand the laws and regulations that govern the CIA.”
“We’ve had a long and torturous history trying to make sure covert actions are under strict guidance,” Johnson said.
Aftergood said that while the use of contractors does give the CIA flexibility, “it’s not a substitute for a well-conceived and sustained operational plan.”
“By hiring contractors, the agency places one more veil over its activities. These contractors are even less subject to independent oversight than CIA’s normal activities,” Aftergood said.
The CIA doesn’t always acknowledge the deaths of its officers, sometimes saying that revealing their identities could compromise their sources. But in the case of Mueller and Carlson, the agency said it could provide their names without compromising any intelligence operations.
A determination whether to give each a star on the memorial wall in the lobby of the agency’s main building will be made in the coming months. CIA officers who die in the line of duty receive a star — although some of the names associated with them remain classified. At least some of the 80 stars on the wall are associated with contractors.