President Trump is maneuvering to establish his own intelligence service to do what the CIA cannot or will not do for him.
According to BuzzFeed, Trump is considering a proposal for a private company, the Amyntor Group, “to set up a large intelligence network and run counterterrorist propaganda efforts.”
The Intercept reports the plan was developed by Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater private security firm, with assistance from Oliver North, a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. Their plan is an outgrowth of Prince’s proposal, floated earlier this year, to privatize U.S. covert operations in Afghanistan.
The goal is “to provide CIA Director Mike Pompeo and the White House with a global, private spy network that would circumvent official U.S. intelligence agencies.”
Prince’s Afghanistan privatization proposal, while touted by Trump, was ultimately rejected by Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who reportedly preferred an “in-house solution.” Nonetheless, Trump’s advisers have apparently not abandoned the idea of a privatized security force accountable only to the White House.
“’Pompeo can’t trust the CIA bureaucracy, so we need to create this thing that reports just directly to him,’ said a former senior U.S. intelligence official with firsthand knowledge of the proposals, in describing White House discussions.”
“It is a direct-action arm, totally off the books,” the source said, meaning the intelligence collected would not be shared with the rest of the CIA or the larger intelligence community.
In intelligence lingo, “direct-action” refers to “short-duration strikes and other small-scale offensive actions conducted as a special operation in hostile, denied, or politically sensitive environments.”
In other words, Trump is hearing out proposals to create a private organization that can mount secret operations in places where the CIA and the military prefer not to.
The tipoff is the leadership of Amyntor, which includes “veterans of a variety of U.S. covert operations, ranging from the Reagan-era Iran-Contra affair to more recent actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
The resurfacing of Oliver North in Trump’s deliberations is telling. North, a frequent Fox News commentator, was brought on to sell the idea in Washington.
Thirty years ago, North was a National Security Council staffer when Congress forbade the Reagan administration from spending any money on military intervention in the civil wars of Central America. With White House approval, North set up a secret, “off-the-books” network to wage a covert war against the leftist government of Nicaragua, which was soon uncovered by investigative reporters.
“It was a shadow CIA, hidden from Congress, unaccountable to the American public and answering only to the White House,” wrote Robert Parry and Brian Barger in the New Republic in 1986.
Reagan’s secret intelligence network was a fiasco. When a Lebanese newsmagazine exposed North’s too-clever scheme to sell weapons to the government of Iran in return for secret funding of the Contra army, the revelation plunged the Reagan White House into two years of scandal and investigation.
Whether Republicans in Congress would object to such abuses today is an open question.
At the time there was no question that North and his collaborator network had violated numerous U.S. laws. Special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh, the Robert Mueller of his day, eventually brought charges, much to the dismay of Republicans.
Duane Clarridge, chief of CIA operations in the Western Hemisphere, and three other senior officials were indicted on criminal charges. They were headed for trial in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush pardoned them.
North ran for U.S. Senate in Virginia in 1994 and was defeated after the Washington Post and other news organizations reported that his off-the-books network had relied on a Honduran general-turned-drug trafficker, whom North sought to save from a prison term. Since then, North has found a niche as a political commentator and friend of Sarah Palin.
North did not to respond to questions about the Buzzfeed and Intercept stories.
Like Reagan, Trump is considering a private clandestine service to bypass his own government and achieve his foreign policy dreams.
Like North, the Amyntor Group is offering a belligerent president the tantalizing possibility of a foreign policy “win.”
As the Intercept notes, Prince and North have long chafed at the failure of the U.S. government to bring two suspects from “a high-profile terrorist event in the 1980s” to justice. That sounds like a reference to the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by Palestinian commandos. An American hostage, Leon Klinghoffer, was murdered during the hijacking.
Last summer, Amyntor’s John Maguire, a former CIA officer, discussed “rendering” the suspects with White House officials after learning the men had been located in the Middle East. Maguire, a former SWAT team cop in Baltimore, is a veteran of the CIA’s Contra war and served in Iraq during the U.S. invasion.
Associates of Maguire began working on a snatch operation earlier this year, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official who spoke to the Intercept.
One former colleague of Maguire’s called the Amyntor plan “totally unrealistic.”
“Pompeo says he’s going to quit p*ssy-footing around,” the colleague said, “but a Blackwater for renditions is not going to fly.”
You might think Oliver North’s efforts to win leniency for a cocaine trafficker wouldn’t fly. But the advocates of privatizing U.S. intelligence are not easily embarrassed or discouraged.
As Buzzfeed notes, “Privatizing intelligence operations and covert actions is highly controversial.”
“All the institutional structures exist to prevent things from going off the rails,” one U.S. official told Buzzfeed. “Is this an attempt to circumvent oversight?”
Yes, it is. Not unlike ones we’ve seen before.