How an ‘Off-the-Books Spy Operation’ Happens
This is Michael D. Furlong, a strategic planner for the Joint Information Operations Warfare Command based in Texas. According to a baroque story in today’s New York Times, Furlong is under criminal investigation for diverting money from a program that hired contractors to gather information about Afghanistan and Pakistan and used it to run what the paper terms an “off the books spy operation” to kill militants in the region.
One of those contractors ran a website called AfPax Insider. (I should disclose that I’m an acquaintance of one of AfPax Insider’s founders, Robert Young Pelton, and a friend of mine has worked for a previous Pelton venture that inspired AfPax Insider; I wrote something for that venture, IraqSlogger, when I was in Iraq in 2007.) Pelton and his partner, the former CNN executive Eason Jordan, maintain that AfPax Insider’s work and the government money to finance it were misused by Furlong to run his intelligence shop. The CIA objects to Furlong’s potentially-illegal work; Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategic-communications chief, Rear Adm. Greg Smith, objected to the contract that funded AfPax Insider; it is unclear whether anyone died as a result of what Furlong pulled off.
The question is why Furlong felt he had sufficient cover from the contract to divert money. And while the answer is anything but clear — the Times says no one knows “who condoned and supervised his work,” if anyone – the lax attitude to oversight permeating all aspects of contracting in war zones is a powerful institutional incentive.
Blackwater guards can kill innocent civilians in war zones, steal U.S. military weaponry and still be eligible for future contracts because no contracting official will use the power he or she possesses to declare the company ineligible for bids. A branch of the State Department responsible for contracting out private security firms exhibited years’ worth of disinterest in oversight, resulting in the disappearance of about $1 billion in taxpayer money and the potential vulnerability to waste, fraud and abuse of up to $1.5 billion more. Ironically, when McChrystal’s command requested that the State Department branch lose the ability to control a contract for training Afghan police, the contract became ripe for Blackwater’s picking.
Furlong might not be forgiven by the criminal justice system, but he can certainly be forgiven for thinking he could get away with creating his own intelligence and assassination unit.