Author and adventurer Robert Young Pelton is perhaps best known for his best-selling guides to The World's Most Dangerous Places. A veteran of battles in Afghanistan, sieges in Chechnya and attacks in Liberia, and a survivor of an assassination attempt in Uganda and a kidnapping in Colombia, Pelton has also spent time hunting for Osama with the CIA and hanging out with both Blackwater contractors and the insurgents they were fighting in Iraq.
Two months ago, Pelton says, things started to get really scary in one of the world's truly most dangerous places - the environs of Washington, D.C.
That's when the New York Times broke a story headlined "Contractors Tied to Effort to Track and Kill Militants," and ran a picture of Pelton above a caption identifying him as "a contractor."
The article explained how "under the cover of a benign government information-gathering program," a Defense Department official named Michael D. Furlong "set up a network of private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help track and kill suspected militants..." Furlong is a civilian Pentagon official with years of experience in what the military used to call "psyops" or "psychological operations" -- now referred to as "information operations." Unnamed "government officials" (no doubt with DC-area offices in Langley, Virginia) told Times reporter Mark Mazzetti they believed Furlong "might have channeled money away from a program intended to provide American commanders with information about Afghanistan's social and tribal landscape, and toward secret efforts to hunt militants on both sides of the country's porous border with Pakistan." Furlong's operation, as the Times reported, involves "a mysterious American company run by retired Special Operations officers and an iconic C.I.A. figure who had a role in some of the agency's most famous episodes, including the Iran-Contra affair." His "operators" gathered intelligence on militants and the location of their camps, which was then passed on to military and intelligence officials "for possible lethal action" in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Did any of this intrigue involve Robert Young Pelton? Or has he - along with his business partner, the former CNN executive Eason Jordan - become collateral damage in a murky "rogue" intelligence affair?
Pelton and Jordan had been hired by the US military to run a public website aimed at helping government officials gain a better understanding of the Afghanistan/Pakistan region. The pair thought up the idea for the government information program sometime in 2008 and approached Gen. David D. McKiernan, who was about to become the top American commander in Afghanistan. Their previous "Iraq Slogger" website had employed Iraqis to report and write news stories. Now they proposed setting up a similar Web site in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- "Iraq Slogger on steroids," Pelton calls it -- to be financed largely by the American military. Dubbed AfPax Insider, their proposed reporting and research network was meant to be an "open-source" news gathering operation, involving only unclassified materials gathered by employees. The project would involve not only a subscription-based Web site, but a secure information database only the military could access in addition.
McKiernan endorsed the proposal and told them "to get to work," but funding was late in coming and less than expected. In the summer of 2009 they were told their services were no longer needed. Instead, the planned budget of $22 million that was supposed to go to their Web site was apparently redirected by Furlong toward "off the books" intelligence gathering used to kill militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Instead of using Pelton and Jordan, Furlong employed two other companies. The first was International Media Ventures -- several of whose senior executives are former members of the military's covert Special Operations forces -- which describes itself as a public relations firm and "an industry leader in creating potent messaging content and interactive communications." IMV President Robert Pack says it provides "information and media atmospherics, research and analysis for good governance and development in Afghanistan, civil society demographics and dynamics, key audience and influence group analysis, and media channel utilization."
"Were they using us as cover?" Pelton wonders. "I don't know, but I do know we got cut out after the snowball got rolling. Were we exploited? What was exploited was our concept of providing 'atmospherics.'"
The second firm was American International Security Corporation, run by former Green Beret Mike Taylor, who employed Duane Clarridge, a former top C.I.A. official linked to the Iran-Contra scandal. AISC was also employed by The New York Times in late 2008 until mid-June 2009 to assist in the case of David Rohde, a reporter who was kidnapped by the Taliban in Afghanistan and held for seven months in Pakistan's tribal areas before finally escaping. Who led the mission for the Times? None other than Duane Clarridge, who then began establishing a network of informants around the globe.
The Times, which withheld information about Rohde's kidnapping for months, is now also withholding information about the contractor network, including some of the names of agents working in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But in a front page story this week, Mazzetti did reveal that Furlong's "rogue operation" is still operating, and that its "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."
Pelton believes he has become cannon fodder in a turf war between the CIA and the Pentagon, with the Times acting as the CIA's mouthpiece and media outlet. "The narrative has become Blackwater-like," he complains. "The unstated assumption is that we are the same sort of 'contractors' as Blackwater." Instead, Pelton says, it was "a constant battle with Furlong," who was "constantly trying to push us in that direction." He avers that he and Jordan are "not spies and not contractors, but open-source information providers" who got caught in the middle of what might be "a CIA Frankenstein."
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell has said that the entire program "remains under investigation by multiple offices within the Defense Department." Meanwhile, Pentagon officials decided recently not to renew the contract, which expires at the end of this month.
"We gave them everything we promised," Pelton told me. "But the worst part of all this is that the military still desperately needs exactly what we could provide them. Instead, our information was being used to kill people!"