WASHINGTON - CIA Director Leon E. Panetta has canceled a contract with the former Blackwater security firm that allowed the company's operatives to load missiles on Predator drones in Pakistan.
Panetta canceled the contract earlier this year, and the work is being transitioned to government personnel, a person familiar with the contract said yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified program.
Blackwater is now known as Xe Services. A spokesman was not immediately available for comment. The New York Times first reported the contract's existence in August.
The CIA's Predator program targets senior al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban in Pakistan's tribal area along the border with Afghanistan, but the agency has never publicly confirmed its role in the operation.
Since Jan. 28, 2008, there have been at least 67 suspected U.S. missile strikes into Pakistan, according to Pakistani intelligence officials and witnesses interviewed by the Associated Press after each strike.
A fresh strike took place Tuesday, according to Pakistani officials. Its target was identified yesterday by a U.S government official as Saleh al-Somali, a senior al-Qaeda operations planner.
Somali was responsible for the terror group's operations outside the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, reaching into activities in Africa, the official said, adding that Somali had probably been involved in plotting attacks against the United States and Europe. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss covert operations.
News of the contract's cancellation came on the heels of published reports that Blackwater operatives joined CIA agents in "snatch and grab" raids that took place regularly from 2004 to 2006, when violence from the Iraq insurgency was escalating.
A U.S. official confirmed Thursday that Blackwater provided security and traveled with CIA teams on missions in war zones, but emphasized they were not hired to directly participate in sensitive CIA missions.
Panetta ordered a review several months ago of the company's contracts to be sure that its guards perform only security-related work, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
CIA spokesman George Little said yesterday, "At this time, Blackwater is not involved in any CIA operations other than in a security or support role."
An e-mailed statement from Xe spokesman Mark Corallo said, "Blackwater USA was never under contract to participate in covert raids with CIA or Special Operations personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else."
The firm, based in Moyock, N.C., changed its corporate name to Xe (pronounced zee) this year after a series of use-of-force controversies, including a September 2007 shooting in Baghdad by five company security guards that left 17 civilians dead.
The CIA's paramilitary forces are small, and often borrow from U.S. military special forces to fill out their ranks. They rely on companies like Blackwater to provide drivers, convoy security, and perimeter protection on sensitive CIA operations.
The central question was whether private guards crossed the line into direct participation in the CIA operations. Courtney Littig, a spokeswoman for the House intelligence committee, said the panel's staff "has contacted the CIA for additional details and clarification of these recent news stories."