Intelligence Gathering Goes Private?

Since 2002, I’ve worked as a security advisor to journalists in hostile environments including Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is one reason the headline in Sunday’s New York Times sent chills down my spine: Contractors Tied to Efforts to Track and Kill Militants. Sadly, the story that followed justified my reaction. In a nutshell, the New York Times reported that a US Defense Department official, Michael D. Furlong, established a network of private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to gather intelligence on suspected insurgents -- intelligence which may have been used to track and kill them. As the New York Times pointed out, it is ‘generally considered illegal’ for the military to hire private contractors as spies. If it were up to me, it would be expressly outlawed. I’ve long argued against outsourcing military work to PMCs (private military companies) on the basis that profit driven enterprises can never match the military’s professionalism. Tasks such as close protection (body guarding) and running logistical convoys cannot be done effectively when driven by bottom line considerations. But this latest military addition to the private sector portfolio threatens to do more than compromise professionalism. If allowed to continue, it could compromise an entire profession.

Reportedly, Mr. Furlong’s private spook network used firms run by retired Special Forces officers and one which employed a notorious ex-CIA figure. (You’d expect as much.) The real shocker, in my opinion, was that Furlong also allegedly exploited the work of Afpax, a website conceived as a reporting and research network to be funded primarily by the US military.

Despite having received money directly from the military, Afpax founders, journalist/author Robert Young Pelton and ex-CNN executive Eason Jordan deny that they were ever in the intelligence gathering business. They claim that Afpax information was misused by Mr. Furlong, and that they severed ties with him last fall.

Mr. Jordan defended Afpax as an ‘open-source’ newsgathering operation that does not deal in classified information, while Mr. Pelton told one interviewer, "We’re no different than if you hired The New York Times to do a story." I’m sure they see it that way. Still, open source or not, in my view, Afpax crossed a line when it sought military funding.

Legitimate newsgathering operations do not get paid by the military to aggregate information on the enemy, nor do they offer to set up meetings between the Taliban and American military commanders (a service which Mr. Pelton said Afpax provided). That is the job of spooks.

No matter how impartial, fact gathering by Western journalists and their local fixers in these areas can invite suspicion. In the most extreme cases, the Taliban have accused kidnapped journalists of being spies. If Afpax and its association with Mr. Furlong’s network ends up tarring all media in the region with the same brush, the cloud of suspicion that hangs over legitimate journalists could very well become a downpour. Journalists in Afghanistan and Pakistan face enough hazards without PMJs – Private Military Journalists—blurring the distinction between legitimate, impartial newsgathering and outsourced military intelligence operations. Perhaps the Committee to Protect Journalists has something to say on the subject…

---Bob Shepherd

Bob Shepherd is an ex-SAS soldier and bestselling author of The Circuit. To read more posts by him, please visit www.bobshepherdauthor.com.