Current headlines about the resignation of Andrew McCabe, Deputy Director of the FBI, and other controversy surrounding the US intelligence establishment, have reminded me of a recent disturbing story that got little notice beyond brief mentions by CNN and ABC.
The online investigative news publication The Intercept had reported that Erik Prince, former head of the private military contractor Blackwater, was proposing a private spy network.
In an interview with Breitbart News last summer, Prince suggested reviving the Vietnam-era Phoenix program, an extralegal initiative to eliminate suspected enemy operatives. And he’s publicly advocated outsourcing the war in Afghanistan to contractors, who would be free to operate independently of the military chain of command.
Since many in the Trump Administration clearly don’t trust the national intelligence services, which it sees as a “deep state” allied with the President’s enemies, the idea was that Prince would set up a network of spies, funded by private donors, reporting directly to CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who’s known for his loyalty to the president.
Both CNN and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times reported that the idea had been pitched to the administration, though not necessarily to the President himself. But White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has denied that such an arrangement was ever under official consideration, concluding, “Did some random person off the street come in and say something? I don’t know.”
But Erik Prince, brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, can hardly be characterized as “some random person off the street,” and the Intercept reported that for this initiative he consulted none other than Oliver North – who famously admitted lying to Congress about his substantial role in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.
A privately-funded spy network, reporting only to one of the President’s closest advisors, would be an alarming prospect. While its work was apparently being pitched as international, to supplement or replace the work of the CIA and the National Security Council, by definition it would operate without the usual oversight from the Justice Department, Congress or the public. And I could well imagine how it might drift into spying on the President’s enemies, real or imagined, within the United States.
Nazi Germany had the SS, East Germans suffered through the Stasi, and Russians still live with the FSB. We need to pay attention.