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WASHINGTON — The CIA hired private contractors from Blackwater USA in 2004 as part of a secret program to kill top-level members of al-Qaida, but a spokesman says it never resulted in the capture or killing of any terrorist suspects.
Former Rep. Porter Goss was CIA director at the time, and the contract ended during his time in office, according to a former senior intelligence official and another person familiar with the program. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the program remains classified.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday the CIA broke the law by failing to notify Congress about the program earlier, her strongest statement yet condemning the agency's actions.
The CIA began the hit squad program shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but it never became fully operational.
CIA Director Leon Panetta terminated the program in June upon learning of it, then informed the congressional intelligence committees in an emergency briefing the next day. CIA spokesman George Little said the program yielded no successes.
The New York Times, citing unidentified current and former government officials, said Blackwater executives helped with planning, training and surveillance for the program.
The officials told the Times that the CIA's use of an outside company for a potentially lethal program was a major reason Panetta called the emergency congressional briefing. The Times first reported Blackwater's involvement late Wednesday on its Web site.
Blackwater, a North Carolina company now known as Xe Services, has come under heavy criticism for its alleged role in a September 2007 shooting in Baghdad's Nisoor Square that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead.
It was unclear whether the CIA had planned to use the contractors to capture or kill al-Qaida operatives or just to help with training and surveillance. Government officials said bringing outsiders into a program with lethal authority raised deep concerns about accountability in covert operations, the Times reported.
The Times reported that the CIA did not have a formal contract with Blackwater for this program but instead had individual agreements with top company officials, including founder Erik D. Prince.
The revelation of the program created a small political firestorm on Capitol Hill. The House Intelligence Committee in June launched an investigation to determine whether the CIA broke the law by not informing Congress about the secret program as soon as it was begun.
The program had several lives under four successive CIA directors: George Tenet canceled it during his tenure because it never produced results. His successor, Goss, restarted it and inked the Blackwater contracts. Michael Hayden, Goss' successor, downgraded the program from a planned covert action to an intelligence gathering activity. Panetta drove the final stake into the program in June.
Hayden, speaking Thursday at a panel discussion at the National Press Club, said he was initially puzzled by the urgency and excitement surrounding Panetta's briefing to Congress, knowing what he did already about the program. He said he believes Panetta called the emergency meeting because of the political sensitivity of the program rather than concerns about its legality. Hayden would not discuss details of the still-classified effort.
Jack Devine, a 32-year veteran of the CIA's clandestine operations office, said Thursday that the government should be extremely cautious about outsourcing lethal and sensitive CIA operations, in part because those are important capabilities the spy agency should be developing in-house, but also because it looks bad if the operation becomes public.
"If it won't pass the giggle test, you don't want to be involved in it," Devine said.
Feinstein said Thursday she believes the intelligence agencies are using too many contractors for duties that are inherently the responsibility of the government.
The CIA regularly uses contractors for intelligence analysis and operations, Hayden told Congress last year. Contractors participated in the secret harsh interrogations of terrorist suspects, he said. Contractors are no longer allowed to conduct interrogations, Panetta told Congress in April.
More than a quarter of the U.S. intelligence agencies' employees are outside contractors, hired to fill in gaps in the military and civilian work force. About a quarter of them conduct intelligence collection and operations, according to data released last year by the office of the director of national intelligence.
The CIA lost about 25 percent of its manpower and budget in the post-Cold War years, so when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks happened the agency was forced to hire a large number of contractors to plug gaps while it recruited more personnel. About half the CIA is made up of officers hired since the attacks.
Calls to Xe spokeswoman Stacy DeLuke were not immediately returned.