Posted Dec. 13, 2017
The Intercept and Buzzfeed recently reported that the Trump administration was considering a plan to establish a private, off-the=books intelligence network that would run counter-terrorist propaganda efforts around the world. The proposal was developed by Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater private security firm that had been found responsible for massacres of civilians while under contract to the Pentagon during the U.S. war in Iraq.
Prince, the brother of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, had reportedly teamed up for the project with his former CIA colleague John Maguire, the company Amyntor Group and Iran-Contra scandal figure Oliver North. According to the Intercept, the network would “provide CIA Director Mike Pompeo and the White House with a global, private spy network that would circumvent official U.S. intelligence agencies. Sources say the plans have been pitched to the White House as a means of countering ‘deep state’ enemies in the intelligence community seeking to undermine Donald Trump’s presidency.”
Between the Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jefferson Morley, Washington correspondent with Alternet, whose recent article titled, “The Last Thing America Needs Is Trump Armed with His Own Private CIA,” which examines the private spy network proposal. Here, Morely explains why he believes privatizing U.S. intelligence operations is both undemocratic and dangerous.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: There have been these stories circulating since the summer about Erik Prince looking for a way into U.S. policy and offering his services. The first form that the story took, and offered to help in Afghanistan where Prince has an extensive network of contacts through his security company that was once known as Blackwater. The name has now been changed several times to escape the notoriety of Blackwater’s actions in Iraq, where they were involved in several massacres, the killing of noncombatants. So Erik Prince is trying to escape that past while drumming up new business with the government. His proposal for privatizing secret operations in Afghanistan was rejected by Defense Secretary James Mattis. But this story that came back and that was reported on by Buzzfeed and the Intercept and Alternet regarded a different proposal to – but a similar concept – of private security companies’ services to the CIA. And the reports were that specifically that they would provide help with rendition, which is a fancy way of saying they would assist the CIA in capturing, kidnapping and bringing them to the United States to face some kind of justice.
So, you know, we’ve had episodes in the past where the president wants the capability to do something that the CIA says it can’t or won’t do. So it’s not unprecedented, but the plans that being proposed now are unprecedented. The idea that a private company would go and do a rendition of foreign terrorist suspects – that’s never been heard of before. And one of the retired CIA people I talked to said that’s just as non-starter. The idea that you would have a Blackwater for rendition is kind of extraordinary. But we live in extraordinary times and you’d think such a thing wouldn’t be feasible. But we’ve seen a lot unfeasible things happen so, I take it very seriously.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Jefferson, what was the initial response of the White House? And I note here that their first reaction was to declare it some kind of “fantasy and fake news,” but later they hedged a bit and didn’t quite dismiss it out of hand. But maybe you could review that for us.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Yeah, well the White House understands these are very controversial ideas: bypassing the CIA, creating an intelligence network that responds only to the president and is not publicly funded. I mean, there’s a lot of alarm bells that are going to go off. So, they’re saying its fake news. But they’re not denying that this company, Amyntor, run by a friend of Erik Prince has indeed proposed these actions. So, they haven’t really denied the facts of it. They’ve just tried to discredit the message and say somehow that it’s fake. So far as we know, it’s still under consideration.
But now there’s been a light shone on it, they may be reluctant to go ahead given that it may create political problems for them.
BETWEEN THE LINES: What’s been the reaction if any, that we know of, from the U.S. intelligence agencies, the CIA and defense intelligence agencies about this story of a private off-the-books intelligence outfit that Trump wants to report directly to him.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Well there hasn’t been any official reaction from the CIA. And they’re in a tough spot because the CIA only one client, that’s the president. So if the president says I want to do things this way, the CIA is going to be loathe to tell him no. So the institutional pressure within the CIA is going to be to go along with it.
A CIA guy who I talked to, retired officer, distinguished, not part of the current CIA thought that the idea was crazy. Why would you have a CIA doing something that the CIA didn’t want to do or couldn’t do? His thought as an intelligence professional was, it was just a bad idea. Quite apart from the politics, whatever political goals the Trump administration might be seeking – the idea of running an intelligence service to create a private competitor – it’s not the way to go.
We have a CIA to accomplish certain tasks to create another entity to do that, either you’re trying to evade the law or you’re trying to evade public accountability. But whatever it is, it’s not necessary and it’s not a good idea. And we saw in Iran-Contra, what the results were. Massive law-breaking.
- Interview with Jefferson Morley, conducted by Scott Harris, Counterpoint, Dec. 11, 2017 (26:10)
- “The Last Thing America Needs Is Trump Armed with His Own Private CIA,” by Jefferson Morley, Alternet, Dec. 5, 2017
- “This Erik Prince Transcript Is Unbelievable,” Esquire, Dec. 8, 2017
- “Trump White House Weighing Plans for Private Spies to Counter “Deep State” Enemies,” The Intercept, Dec. 4, 2017
- “The Trump Administration Is Mulling A Pitch For A Private “Rendition” And Spy Network,” Buzzfeed, Nov. 30, 2017
- “Is President Trump Building a Private Spy Network?,” Mother Jones, Dec. 5, 2017
- “Trump to Fight ‘Deep State’ with Secret, Private Spy Network around the World?” Newsweek, Dec. 5, 2017
- “Trump Is Looking at Plans for a Global Network of Private Spies,” Vice, Dec. 5, 2017
- “Trump Considering Spy Network to Combat ‘Deep State’ Enemies: Intercept,” The Hill, Dec. 5, 2017
- “Donald Trump’s Super-Secret Spy Team? This Loony Scheme Is Way Too Plausible,” Salon, Dec. 6, 2017
- “CBS’s Major Garrett To White House: Is President Trump Planning An International Spy Network To Circumvent US Intelligence?” Real Clear Politics, Dec. 5, 2017
- “Oliver North Urging White House to Build Private Spy Army Overseen by Betsy Devos’ Brother: Reports,” Raw Story, Dec. 5, 2017