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Private spy network aids FBI in Afghan inquiry

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WASHINGTON » Not long after the Pentagon severed its relationship with a private spy network operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the FBI quietly began tapping the same group to help investigate the killing of 10 medical aid workers in northern Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials and private contractors.

The spy network, managed by Duane R. Clarridge, 78, a former top official at the Central Intelligence Agency, has provided agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Kabul with intelligence reports about militants who may have been involved in the attack, which killed six Americans in August.

How the FBI uses the information, and whether it has been valuable, is unclear. But that the FBI would use Clarridge’s group — at the same time the Pentagon is investigating whether it and other private spies were hired in Afghanistan and Pakistan in violation of Defense Department policy — shows the limits of the U.S. government’s own information sources in the chaos of a war zone.

The arrangement, in which Clarridge is not being paid, shows his determination to persuade the government of the value of his spying operation, which he oversees from his home in Southern California, as he struggles to keep the network afloat with private financing.

Clarridge’s network, recently renamed the Eclipse Group, has also fed information to an FBI-supervised task force in Kabul charged with rooting out corruption inside Afghanistan’s government, according to people familiar with the operation who would speak only on condition of anonymity. The group’s reports have run the gamut from the business dealings of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of President Hamid Karzai, to rumors that Afghan officials secretly shipped large amounts of money to Dubai.

An FBI spokesman declined to comment on Clarridge’s work with the bureau in Afghanistan. Raymond Granger, Clarridge’s lawyer, would not discuss any ties between Clarridge and the FBI, but said The Eclipse Group was "cooperating with the Justice Department’s investigation in the murder of the 10 aid workers, and is prepared to assist in other areas as well."

Granger, a former federal prosecutor, said the FBI’s use of private citizens for help in criminal investigations, in the United States or abroad, was "as basic as it gets." He said that Clarridge was not being paid for any work he did for the government.

The attack on the 10 medical aid workers in the remote mountains of Badakhshan province in August was the largest killing of aid workers in the country in years. American officials still do not know who was responsible. Taliban press releases in the days after the deaths accused the group of being Western spies.

Typically, the FBI opens a homicide investigation when American civilians are killed overseas, with the aim of prosecuting the perpetrators in U.S. courts.

The medical team, part of a group called International Assistance Mission, was led by Tom Little, an optometrist who for decades administered care in remote parts of Afghanistan to some of the country’s poorest villages.

Clarridge’s spy network is made up of former CIA and special forces operatives, as well as dozens of Afghan and Pakistani locals. From his home near San Diego, Clarridge pieces together dispatches from overseas and arranges for the reports to be posted on a password-protected website.

Officials said that the website, afpakfp.com, is checked periodically by foreign intelligence services, including the British and the Italians. Currently, the site promises "a substantial rebuild" and asks its customers to "be patient."

Under the Pentagon contract, Clarridge’s team of private spies regularly sent encrypted e-mails about militant activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan to a military information operations center in Kabul. Once the $22 million contract was terminated in May, Clarridge focused some of his network’s resources on digging up material about Hamid Karzai and his family.

The Defense Department’s inspector general is investigating the circumstances of how Clarridge and other subcontractors were hired for the spying operation. An initial Pentagon investigation found that the private contractors carried out "unauthorized" intelligence gathering operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The military is prohibited from hiring private contractors as spies.

Clarridge, who had been indicted in 1991 for lying to Congress about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal and then pardoned a year later, recently told a local newspaper reporter that he had taken to carrying a Taser when he leaves the house to protect himself against terrorist reprisals.

Private contractors familiar with Clarridge’s group said that the FBI’s appetite for incriminating information about Afghan corruption had waned since last year, and top U.S. officials and military commanders in Kabul had dialed back their public criticism of Hamid Karzai’s government. Many advisers inside the administration worried that making Hamid Karzai’s inner circle a target of corruption probes would only further erode the Afghan president’s support for America’s military campaign in Afghanistan.

 

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