WASHINGTON — From a secret division at its North Carolina headquarters, the company formerly known as Blackwater has assumed a role in Washington's most important counterterrorism program: The use of remotely piloted drones to kill al-Qaida's leaders, according to government officials and current and former employees.
The division's operations are carried out at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company's contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the Central Intelligence Agency. They also provide security at the covert bases, the officials said.
The role of the company in the Predator program highlights the degree to which the CIA depends on outside contractors to perform some of the agency's most important assignments. And it illustrates the resilience of Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, though most people in and outside the company still refer to it as Blackwater. It has grown through government work, even as it attracted allegations of brutality in Iraq.
A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment.
The New York Times reported Thursday that the agency hired Blackwater in 2004 as part of a secret program to locate and assassinate top Qaida operatives.
In interviews on Thursday, current and former government officials provided new details about Blackwater's association with the assassination program, which began in 2004 not long after Porter Goss took over at the CIA. The officials said the spy agency did not dispatch the Blackwater executives with a "license to kill." Instead, it ordered the contractors to begin collecting information on the whereabouts of al-Qaida's leaders, carry out surveillance and train for possible missions.
Any operation to capture or kill militants would have to be approved by the CIA director and presented to the White House before it was carried out, the officials said. CIA Director Leon Panetta canceled the program and notified Congress of its existence in an emergency meeting in June.
Blackwater provided private security to U.S. diplomats in Iraq, but lost the job this year over 2007 shootings involving its guards that left 17 Iraqis dead. It still has other State Department work.