WASHINGTON — The secret CIA program to assassinate top Al Qaeda leaders was outsourced in 2004 to Blackwater USA, the private security contractor whose operations in Iraq prompted intense scrutiny, according to two former intelligence officials familiar with the events.
The North Carolina-based company was given operational responsibility for targeting suspected terrorist commanders and was awarded millions of dollars for training and weaponry, but the program was canceled before any missions were conducted, the two officials said.
The assassination program -- revealed to Congress in June by CIA Director Leon E. Panetta -- was initially launched in 2001 as a CIA-led effort. But in 2004, after briefly terminating the program, agency officials revived it under a different code name, using outside contractors, the officials said.
"Outsourcing gave the agency more protection in case something went wrong," said a retired intelligence officer intimately familiar with the program.
The contract was awarded to Blackwater, now known as Xe Services LLC, in part because of its close ties to the CIA and because of its record for carrying out covert assignments overseas, officials said. Blackwater's reputation was later tarnished after unrelated deadly shootings in Iraq.
Panetta briefed members of two congressional panels about the program in July, saying that he had only recently learned of the program and, upon doing so, had canceled it. He also told lawmakers that he thought they had been inappropriately kept in the dark -- in part because former Vice President Dick Cheney had directed the CIA not to reveal the program to Congress.
The CIA declined to comment. Efforts to reach Blackwater for comment were unsuccessful. Blackwater's alleged involvement was first reported Wednesday night on the New York Times website.
The House Intelligence Committee has launched an investigation into whether the CIA broke the law by failing to notify Congress about the program for eight years.