Pentagon eyes contractor ties to hunt for militants

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon said on Monday it was looking into “serious allegations” about a U.S. Defense Department official accused of setting up a unit of private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help track and kill suspected militants.

But the Pentagon declined to confirm any of the allegations detailed in a New York Times report or say whether a formal investigation was underway.

The newspaper reported Michael D. Furlong, a retired Air Force officer, may have channeled money away from a program meant to provide U.S. commanders with details of Afghanistan’s social and tribal landscape and toward secret efforts to hunt militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

“That story makes some serious allegations and raises numerous questions that warrant further review by the (defense) department,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

The U.S. military acknowledged Furlong was a civilian employee at U.S. Strategic Command’s Texas-based Joint Information Operations Warfare Center.

According to its website, the center “uses information as a tool to change attitudes or perception.” Furlong’s title was strategic planner and technology integration advisor, said a spokesman for Strategic Command, which oversees Furlong’s work.

The Times reported Furlong hired contractors from private security companies that employed former CIA and Special Forces operatives.

The contractors gathered intelligence on the whereabouts of suspected militants and the location of insurgent camps, with that material sent to military units and intelligence officials for possible lethal action in Afghanistan and Pakistan, unnamed officials told the paper.

The Times said the story was based on interviews with U.S. military and intelligence officials and businessmen in the region. The sources requested anonymity, it said, because the case is under investigation.

The Times said Furlong’s operation appeared to have been shut down and the Defense Department investigation was looking at possible criminal offenses, including fraud.

U.S. Strategic Command declined to comment on any probe, saying: “We do not acknowledge whether someone is or is not under investigation.” It also said Furlong would not be available for media interviews.

‘PRETENDING TO BE JAMES BOND’

Some U.S. officials interviewed by the Times said they became troubled that Furlong seemed to be running an off-the-books spy operation.

“While no legitimate intelligence operations got screwed up, it’s generally a bad idea to have freelancers running around a war zone pretending to be James Bond,” one U.S. government official told the paper.

Officials told the Times they were not sure who condoned Furlong’s project.

Contractor and author Robert Young Pelton told the Times the U.S. government hired him to gather information about Afghanistan but that Furlong improperly used his work.

“We were providing information so they could better understand the situation in Afghanistan, and it was being used to kill people,” Pelton was quoted as saying.

Some officials told the Times it was unclear whether Furlong’s program resulted in the deaths of militants but others involved in the operation said it did.

(Writing by World Desk Americas; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by John O’Callaghan)

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