A Pentagon official has been accused of hiring a secret network of private contractors to spy on militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan so they could be hunted and killed.
The employee is said to have paid firms using former members of the special forces and CIA under the cover of an innocuous government scheme to gather tribal and cultural information.
Their reports were then passed to military and intelligence units so they could kill militants and target insurgent camps, officials told The New York Times.
It was not clear if Michael D Furlong, the Pentagon official at the centre of the accusations, had approval for the scheme but officials said they had become alarmed he was running an off-the-books spy agency.
The network is alleged to have been blown when the CIA chief in Kabul personally complained to the US Defence Department.
His operation has now been shut down and he is subject to criminal investigation for offences including contract fraud.
One official said: “While no legitimate intelligence operations got screwed up, it’s generally a bad idea to have freelancers running around a war zone pretending to be James Bond.” Government officials alleged Mr Furlong could have improperly siphoned off funds from a scheme to supply commanders with information on the region’s tribes.
In 2008, he was put in charge of a £15m ($22m) budget to hire private contractors to glean political and tribal information for Nato commanders.
Robert Young Pelton, an author and government contractor who worked with Mr Furlong, alleged his work had been improperly used. Several officials said the intelligence had seen insurgents killed and Mr Furlong had boasted of his successes.
The United States has for several years waged an aggressive “kill or capture” campaign using commandos and unmanned drones against senior Taliban and al-Qaeda figures in the mountainous Afghan border area.
Mr Pelton said: “We were providing information so they could better understand the situation in Afghanistan, and it was being used to kill people.” A spokesman for the Pentagon said the affair was now under investigation.
He said: “The story makes some serious allegations and raises numerous unanswered questions that warrant further review by the department.”
The accusation follows a previous disclosure that CIA officials hired the American mercenary firm Blackwater for an aborted assassination programme aimed at al-Qaeda terrorists in Iraq.
By Ben Farmer in Kabul
Published: 6:34PM GMT 15 Mar 2010
Source: The Telegraph