Hacks, flaks and spooks in Afghan venture

The media, government intelligence services and private security firms are getting closer as old media winds down and private security firms seek more information for themselves or government contracts. The New York Times describes some of these ventures in an article today.

The central allegation is that a Pentagon official, “Michael D. Furlong, hired contractors from private security companies that employed former CIA and Special Forces operatives. The contractors, in turn, gathered intelligence on the whereabouts of suspected militants and the location of insurgent camps, and the information was then sent to military units and intelligence officials for possible lethal action in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the officials said.”

The piece is a bit confusing, in part because of the mixture of actors and subjects. They include AfPax, a website run by Eason Jordan, a former CNN boss, International Media Ventures, a “strategic communications firm” (more strategic than communications: the management is mainly ex-military), Robert Young Pelton, author of a book on the pprivate security industry, and Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, a veteran intelligence officer.

It is not clear if the venture is just about intelligence collection, which often uses open sources, but seems to have mixed up motives, finances, methods and structures in this case. It also appears to involve the use of strategic communications firms to distribute information, or psyops. And it crosses over into the world of security firms since some of the actors were involved in the (very messy and muddled) efforts to free David Rohde, the NY Times guy kidnapped (and freed) last year.

This piece in Wired by Nathan Hodge makes some good points about this issue. “Afghanistan, in fact, has been a longtime laboratory for strategic communications,” it notes. “And then there’s the military’s interest in newsgathering-type intelligence on Afghanistan’s social and cultural scene.”

This is a useful reminder that it would be too easy to dismiss this as either a piece of failed experimentation, or a conspiracy, or a bunch of wannabes. Structurally, there are reasons why the private and public sector are increasingly working together in this area; and why the security and intelligence worlds and media are converging in some areas. They always have to some degree crossed over, and now the barriers that used to (in theory) divide these separate worlds are crumbling.

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