(This post has been revised since it was originally posted.)
By Frank James
A question not answered by Friday's New York Times revelation that Blackwater guards were actually taking part in Central Intelligence Agency raids during the Bush Administration is the question of whether private contractors are still doing functions in Afghanistan and Iraq that Americans normally expect U.S. military members to perform.
And it sounds like even members of the Obama Administration who one might expect to have clarity on this, don't.
As the NYT reports:
Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, recently initiated an internal review examining all Blackwater contracts with the agency to ensure that the company was performing no missions that were "operational in nature," according to one government official.
The Associated Press reports that a spokesman for the company that used to be called Blackwater that now goes by Xe Services denies the NYT story:
A spokesman for the company, now called Xe (zee) Services, says, "Blackwater USA was never under contract to participate in covert raids with CIA or Special Operations personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else."
He goes on to say that "any allegation to the contrary by any news organization would be false."
His denial is really what's known as a non-denial denial since the NYT story doesn't say that Blackwater was under contract to be the tip of the spear in raids. Rather the NYT story suggests a sort of mission creep that occurred from the contracted role of providing perimeter security.
The story mentions that Blackwater guards were also very gung ho about taking part in CIA operations to seize suspects.
That makes sense since many Blackwater employees were formerly U.S. military and some of them were presumably trained as U.S. service members to conduct such operations.
The former American intelligence officials said that Blackwater guards were supposed to only provide perimeter security during raids, leaving it up to C.I.A. officers and Special Operations military personnel to capture or kill suspected insurgents or other targets.
"They were supposed to be the outer layer of the onion, out on the perimeter," said one former Blackwater official of the security guards. Instead, "they were the drivers and the gunslingers," said one former intelligence official.
But in the chaos of the operations, the roles of Blackwater, C.I.A., and military personnel sometimes merged. Former C.I.A. officials said that Blackwater guards often appeared eager to get directly involved in the operations. Experts said that the C.I.A.'s use of contractors in clandestine operations falls into a legal gray area because of the vagueness of language laying out what tasks only government employees may perform.
P.W. Singer, an expert in contracting at the Brookings Institution, said that the types of jobs that have been outsourced in recent years make a mockery of regulations about "inherently governmental" functions.
"We keep finding functions that have been outsourced that common sense, let alone U.S. government policy, would argue should not have been handed over to a private company," he said. "And yet we do it again, and again, and again."
Which is why it's vital for U.S. policymakers to get to the bottom of this by not only looking backwards at what happened during the Bush years but by determining once and for all whether private contractors are still performing the kind of tactical operations for the CIA or other agency that Americans don't necessarily expect such guns for hire to be performing.