US Spy Ring at Work in Pakistan, Afghanistan

Washington, May 16 (IANS): US military officials are still using private detectives to track Taliban guerrillas in Pakistan and Afghanistan in defiance of defence department norms, The New York Times has reported.

Despite concerns about the legality of the operation, top military officials have continued to rely on a secret network of private spies who have produced hundreds of reports from deep inside Afghanistan and Pakistan, the report said Saturday quoting American officials and businessmen.

Earlier this year, government officials admitted that the military had sent a group of former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers and retired Special Operations troops into the region to collect information.

The inputs were used to track and kill people suspected of being militants. It was hastily shut down once a probe began.

"Not only are the networks still operating, their detailed reports on subjects like the workings of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan and the movements of enemy fighters in southern Afghanistan are also submitted almost daily to top commanders and have become an important source of intelligence," The Times said.

Under the Pentagon rules, the army is not allowed to hire private agencies for spying in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Military officials said Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in the region, signed off on the operation in January 2009.

The private security experts, called contractors, were supposed to provide only broad information about the political and tribal dynamics in the region, and information that could be used for "force protection", they said.

The contractors' reports are delivered via an encrypted e-mail service to an "information operations fusion cell", located at the military base at Kabul International Airport. There, they are fed into classified military computer networks, then used for future military operations or intelligence reports, the report said quoting officials.

Some Pentagon officials said that over time the operation appeared to morph into traditional spying activities. And they pointed out that the supervisor who set up the contractor network, Michael D. Furlong, was now under investigation.

But a review of the programme by The Times found that Furlong's operatives were still providing information using the same intelligence gathering methods as before.

The contractors were being paid under a $22 million deal, the review shows.

Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said that the programme "remains under investigation by multiple offices within the defence department", so it would be inappropriate to answer specific questions about who approved the operation or why it continues.

"I assure you we are committed to determining if any laws were broken or policies violated," he was quoted as saying.

A senior defence official said that the Pentagon recently decided not to renew the contract, which expires at the end of May.



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