The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has recruited private security guards from Blackwater for clandestine operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a report says.
The New York Times cited statements by former company employees and intelligence officials as evidence that Blackwater guards participated almost nightly in "snatch and grab" raids on suspected militants during the height of the Iraqi insurgency from 2004 to 2006.
Blackwater's cooperation in the operations implies a far deeper relationship between the spy agency and the private security firm than government officials have previously acknowledged, the paper reported.
"Blackwater's partnership with the CIA has been enormously profitable for the North Carolina-based company, and became even closer after several top agency officials joined Blackwater."
Several former Blackwater guards said that their involvement in the operations became so routine that the lines, supposedly, dividing the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and Blackwater, became blurred.
Instead of simply providing security for CIA officers, they say, Blackwater personnel at times became partners in missions to capture or kill militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, a practice that raises questions about the use of guns for hire on the battlefield.
"It became a very brotherly relationship," an unnamed former top CIA officer told the Times. "There was a feeling that Blackwater eventually became an extension of the agency."
Mark Corallo, a spokesman for Blackwater, said Thursday that the Blackwater was never under contract to participate in clandestine raids with the CIA or with Special Operations personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else.
George Little, a CIA spokesman, would not comment on Blackwater's ties to the agency. But he said the CIA employs contractors to "enhance the skills of our own work force, just as American law permits".
Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, has been under intense criticism for a fatal shooting in September 2007 that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead in an 'unprovoked' incident.