Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Reaction To The Scahill Piece On Blackwater Part I: Anonymous Sources And Not Knowing What To Believe

I have a few thoughts on Jeremy Scahill's piece on Blackwater's alleged activities in Pakistan. I read the piece extremely closely; I read almost every sentence two or three times to properly internalize the revelations contained therein. Because my thoughts on it are a little disparate, I am going to write separate posts on the three big issues I am concerned with. This post will deal with the very basic issue of the extent to which we should buy Scahill's claims. The other two posts, to be written in the next day or two, will deal with the relevance of the substance of the piece to (a) Pakistani security and politics, and (b) American security and politics. So without further ado...

Investigative journalism is a messy business, primarily because the things that we care most about knowing -- secrets -- are the things people are least likely to reveal on the record. People have jobs and reputations and, at the extreme, lives to worry about. This is not an earth-shattering insight from me by any stretch; the point is only to establish a baseline from which our analysis can depart. Simply put, we are unlikely to find out anything truly worth knowing without anonymous sources.

On the other hand, anonymous sources can be a massive problem too. There are two basic issues here. First, and more importantly, anonymous sources can use their anonymity strategically. They can use their anonymity to push an agenda, and leave their claims unchallenged. The most pernicious example of this was the pre-Iraq war consensus within the mainstream U.S. media on Iraq holding WMDs being based on anonymous sources from the executive and intelligence communities. If we don't know who is saying what, then we can't critically examine their incentives to lie and misrepresent.

Generally speaking, anonymous sources can plant seeds of "information" that aren't actually true, but nevertheless essentially change the facts on the ground. With that in mind, it really is up to the journalist in question to be properly skeptical of requests for anonymity. If the journalist thinks the source is up to no good, or is simply pushing an agenda, then the source should either be forced to go on the record, or not be quoted at all. Glenn Greenwald, for instance, has always claimed that it is certainly not the case that all information, whether received from anonymous sources or not, is a good thing; frequently, information from anonymous sources can prove deeply damaging.

The second issue is simply a matter of expertise. As a keen observer of Pakistani politics, this one is especially dear to my heart. If I had a nickel for every time I've read some anonymous source say something so immensely stupid and ill-informed about Pakistani society and politics that it defies belief -- I'm talking about matters of fact, not opinion -- then I can safely say I would remove my tip jar and Google ads from this blog.

Given this state of affairs, it behooves us to assume a default position of skepticism with any news story that relies exclusively on anonymous sources. We know that Scahill's story falls under this category: his piece relies on testimony from three unnamed sources -- one in what he calls the "military intelligence apparatus" of the United States, one former executive of Blackwater, and one U.S. military source with "knowledge of" Special Ops. The question then becomes: to what extent should we trust what Scahill is saying?

There are a number of factors that suggest that Scahill is on to something. First, he has written the book on Blackwater. His expertise on this organization in unrivaled. What that means in concrete terms is that he isn't likely to be duped by people with a political axe to grind; put differently, he is more likely to be discerning when it comes to granting anonymity.

Second, the level of detail provided in the piece would take a seriously high level of imagination to conjure up. The sources that Scahill cites go as far to describe the physical nature of the main Blackwater operational facilities in Karachi ("three trailers with various generators, satellite phones and computer systems are used as a makeshift operations center"), the precise ways in which JSOC, Blackwater, the Pakistani military and Kestral Logistics -- apparently the Pakistani equivalent of Blackwater -- cooperate and interact, the people and organizations involved, and other important nitty-gritty details. Now, it is true that the mere provision of details does not connote truth (Colin Powell at the UN, anyone?). But when trying to figure out how much we should trust the Scahill story in totality, this aspect of the piece should count in its favor.

Third, there is no obvious political winner here, either in terms of people or policies. Who or what gains from these revelations? I can think of none. By contrast, when we see a story in the New York Times about the ISI and the military still supporting elements of the Taliban, the result of those claims being taken at face value mean that those who support a greater U.S. footprint in Pakistan, and greater U.S. pressure on Pakistan, get what they want. That does not mean you dismiss those claims out of hand, but it does mean that we should be aware of the political implications of the story being swallowed wholesale, and the fact that there exists a constituency for whom there is a vested interest in anonymously-sourced quotes being taken as truth.

In this case, it is hard to see who or what benefits. The anti-Blackwater crowd? Well, sure, but (a) they could have said any number of other things that would approximate the truth (such as Blackwater's conduct in the theaters of operations that we already know of, such as Iraq) that would prove as damaging to the organization, and (b) if this was simply an anti-Blackwater crusade, Scahill could and would have found more than three sources, most assuredly. Given that this story helps no one and hurts many people and their agendas, I am more inclined to believe it, because no obvious group is pushing hard for strategic leaks.

With all this said, I do have a couple of questions and concerns. First, why could Scahill find only three people to talk about this? It is clear that the number of people who know the details on Blackwater's involvement in Pakistan is, by my interpretation of Scahill's reporting, in the low hundreds. Even if you account for people having serious incentives to not say anything, you'd have to think that one could find more than three people -- three! -- to speak candidly about this issue, especially behind the cloak of anonymity.

Second, there is disagreement amongst Scahill's sources on what exactly Blackwater is doing in Pakistan. According to the military intelligence source, it is only involved in the planning of raids and attacks, not their execution. The former Blackwater executive, by contrast, alleges that Blackwater personnel (along with Kestral personnel) frequently undertake counter-terrorist operations in conjunction with the Frontier Corps. This is a fairly important disagreement, for it speaks to the extent of the sources' knowledge. One of them is clearly wrong here, which begs an obvious question: what else could they be wrong about?

Based on all this, I am inclined to believe the big blocks in Scahill's story with a necessary dose of skepticism with respect to some of the details. This is not to impugn Scahill one bit; by all accounts, he is an excellent and meticulous journalist. But when dealing with matters of such secrecy, we can never be completely sure of what is true and what is not. Ultimately, it is a judgment call from each individual on how much they privilege which aspects of the story. Reasonable people can disagree here. But the bottom line, it seems to me, is pretty clear: that Blackwater's involvement in Pakistan, while perhaps imprecisely laid out in the article, is surely deeper and heavier than has been revealed thus far. Even if we don't know exactly what they're doing, we know with greater confidence that they're doing something -- something neither the Pakistani or U.S. government wants us to know.

In the next couple of days, I will tease out some of the implications of this finding with respect to the two countries involved.


Rabia said...

"Third, there is no obvious political winner here, either in terms of people or policies. Who or what gains from these revelations?"

the anti surge pro-withdrawal group within the US state dept, for one. This story goes a huge way in increasing political obstacles to the US working closely with the Pakistani govt which would make continuing the war very difficult.

Anonymous said...

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sana said...

re: the conflicting statements of the intel source and the former blackwater executive on whether blackwater's involvement extends to executing said operations - i don't think that's necessarily an indication of one of them not _knowing_ as much as the other. e.g. i can see how even with the cushion of anonymity, the military intel source wouldn't want to admit that blackwater's actually carrying out the ops.

Anonymous said...


Gen (retired) Pervez Musharraf, in his autobiography, had alleged that Omar Saeed was an agent of MI6, the British intelligence agency.
Omar Saeed Sheikh, a detained Pakistani militant, had made hoax calls to President Asif Ali Zardari and the Chief of Army Staff, Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in a bid to heighten Pakistan-India tensions after last year’s terrorist attacks on Mumbai, investigators have told Dawn.

‘Omar Saeed Sheikh was the hoax caller. It was he who threatened the civilian and military leaderships of Pakistan over telephone. And he did so from inside Hyderabad jail,’ investigators said.

The controversy came to light after Dawn broke the story, exactly one year ago, that a hoax caller claiming to be then Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee was making threatening calls to President Zardari.

It was on the night of Nov 26 last year that Saadia Omar, Omar Sheikh’s wife, informed him about the carnage in Mumbai. The sources said that the information was passed on to Omar in Hyderabad jail through his mobile phone, which he was secretly using without the knowledge of the administration.

All but one of the attackers who India alleged were Lashkar-i-Taiba terrorists were shot dead by security personnel.

Saadia kept updating Omar about the massacre through the night and small hours of the morning. On the night of Nov 28, when the authorities had regained control over the better part of the city, Omar Saeed, using a UK-registered mobile SIM, made a phone call to Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

He told an operator handling Mr Mukherjee’s calls that he was the President of Pakistan.
Indian officials started verification as part of security precautions and, after some time, the operator informed Omar Saeed (who was posing to be Pakistan’s president) that the foreign minister would get in touch with him soon. Omar now made a call to President Asif Ali Zardari and then the Chief of Army Staff.

He also made an attempt to talk to the US secretary of state, but security checks barred his way.

The presidency swung into action soon after Mr Zardari’s conversation with the adventurous militant.

President Zardari first spoke to Prime Minister Gilani and informed him about the happenings. He also took Interior Minister Rehman Malik into the loop.

In Rawalpindi, Gen Kayani immediately spoke to the chief of the Inter Services Intelligence, Lt- Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha.

According to sources, not only President Asif Zardari was taken in by Omar’s audacity but the COAS was also baffled by his cheekiness.

Gen Kayani, sharing his thoughts with close associates, said he had been bewildered by the caller’s threatening tone.

But Maj Gen Athar Abbas, the military spokesman, finds the report unbelievable. ‘I am not his (Army chief’s) operator. I don’t know who puts calls through to him, but I think this can’t be true,’ said an incredulous Athar Abbas.

Interestingly, when Omar Saeed Sheikh was making these hoax calls, the Lashkar-i-Taiba (LET) chief was also in Karachi, but it is not known whether Omar Saeed was acting under the guidance of Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi or on his own.

INVESTIGATIONS: On the other hand, investigators got into the act without wasting time, coming up with their findings within hours.

Their conclusion was that the phone call which came from the Indian external affairs ministry was actually their (Indians’) check.

They said the calls to President Zardari and the army chief were made from a Britain-registered SIM.

Gen (retired) Pervez Musharraf, in his autobiography, had alleged that Omar Saeed was an agent of MI6, the British intelligence agency.

The very next morning, Nov 29, Hyderabad jail was raided by intelligence agencies and over a dozen SIMs were recovered along with two mobile sets. Majid Siddiqui, the jail superintendent, was suspended.

‘I don’t know much but it is true that some mobile SIMs and mobile sets were recovered from Omar Saeed Sheikh when he was in Hyderabad jail.


Ahsan said...


Hmm, maybe. I'm not convinced though. I mean, I see what you're saying, in that, releasing this makes Zardari and Kayani look traitorous, which in turn draws into question the US alliance, which in turn makes being partners in the war that much harder. But here are two things against that logic:

1. With respect to public opinion and public pressure, I'm not sure of the marginal effects of this story. Those who wanted to abandon the war/the alliance in Pakistan already believed (more exaggerated versions of) this story. So what's the impact on the margin?

2. Officially, everything is still denied. So at the govt-to-govt level, I don't see much change.

One other thing, with all due respect to the Nation: if this was the NYT, I bet you the reaction would've been different. It simply hasn't got that much traction on the blogs etc.


Why not? He admitted to everything else.

To the two anons:

Everyone has strong opinions but please try and keep your comments relevant to the topic at hand.

YS_1 said...

Excellent analysis Ahsan, however I would like to point out five things:

1) The low hundreds of people who would know about Blackwater are located in Pakistan. Scahill is operating in the US and thus he can only access American sources, of which there could only be scores. Of those scores of senior officer types and veteran NCO Americans, maybe he could only tease this out of a few (i.e, three)

2) Scahill will/might have difficulty now operating in Pakistan to get access to the hundreds of Pakistani sources because he might be stepping on a few toes too many with this article. Which brings me to...

3) Could there be a deeper analysis of the character of this Liaquat Ali Beg who owns/runs Kestral. I googled him and all I got was this strange videmo video of him on some Quran TV type channel. Might this man seriously be a relation of former COAS General Mirza Aslam Beg.

Looking for a picture of him I came up withthis strange collection of QTV interviews and Chinese corporate looking website pictures.

And the third google reference for this man after Kestral trading and Jeremy Scahill's article, Liaquat Ali Beg was referenced in an Ideas Pakistan posting. This is serious. For those who do not know Ideas Pakistan is an annual Weapons trade show, showcasing Pakistan's military industrial complex's newest inventions. If this man Beg and his company have a reference on the Ideas page, he is a serious member of Pakistan's Military Industrial Complex.

YS_1 said...

Yep its turned into a review - but what can you do ;-)

4) The Interior Ministry. The Frontier Corps comes under Rehman Malik. Our unelected Interior Minister is cited by none other than Tariq Ali as being the go-between for the PPP high command and Western intelligence services.

Notice how there is no direct mention in the article of the ISI, MI or the Pakistan Army. My guess is that the Pakistan Army under Kiyani, in the exigencies of fighting its own war in the North West has become some what of its own institution. Notice the current rumour mill to depose the president. More than that, the Army does not trust the Americans as far as it can throw them. It is possible it has its own eyes and ear amongst the retired soldiers and spies in Kestral. That explains why it was feeding the Shireen Mazari/Zaid Hamid faction tales of mythical, but difficult to detect Blackwater.

But where does the Interior Ministry come in? The Blackwater guys controlling drones over FATA and possibly training and fighting with Frontier Corps soldiers can be secreted in via this para-military agency without angering/alerting the general military, the soldiery of which might not take kindly to seeing foreigners operating independently on Pakistani soil.

5) And Jeremy Scahill has alreeady got into trouble for this article. He received an unsolicited call from Admiral Mike Mullen's office.

Scahill Talking to Amy Goodman 1:

Scahill talking to Amy Goodman 2:

Thats like a Pakistani getting a direct call from General Kiyani's office in Pakistan. The call to Scahill was completely unsolicited.

So we have a very dangerous picture.

YS_1 said...

Here's where it can get controversial. What exactly is this special unit of blackwater upto? Not political or security implications, or diplomatic niceties, but actual action?

This unit that goes on border raids with the Frontier Corps and does Assasination by drone. The article lays it out as much. But Snatch and Grab operations are what its prime directive looks more and more like.
Scahill never directly says snatch and grab kidnapping is what the Special Planning Cell does. Thats because he can't directly prove it. But his sources broadly hint that organising kidnaps is the "skill" that has become rare within the US military. Did you see the list of locations these soldiers have been in? Chechnya, Bosnia, Somalia, Ethiopia. The last three is no problem for US soldiers, but might I remind you that Chechnya is within Russian territory? These operators have entered and left a war zone on Russian territory. They are the best of the US best. They aren't involved in hits. If they are doing anything in Pakistan, it could likely involve their Sindhi political contacts (mentioned in the article) or Interior ministry people in FATA trying to (and maybe not suceeding too often) to kidnap Al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives. Or at least simply locate their general area.

If the idea of US operatives kidnapping people seems strange, I would like to divert your attention to the Herald issue of October 2005, in which the case of missing persons was covered. One case of a Mr Paracha who is now serving time in Camp X Ray, Guantanamo Bay is that he had met Bin Laden a few years before 2001. He was grabbed, literally grabbed in a layover at Bangkok airport. And as far as can be told he is still in Guantanamo Bay.

These cases happen very rarely, but they do happen. And Blackwater's Planning Cell is on the prowl for direct enemies of the US. Probably those who threaten their Afghanistan command; especially in light of the fact that Scahills piece directly mentions McChrystal's influence, his role as a progenitor of JSOC itself. So yeah, JSOC/Special Planing could be dealing in Sindh with kidnapping and smuggling kidnappees out.

Coming from Karachi i can assure you that Sindhi politcal families have a reputation in being skilled at kidnapping/holding for hostage.

That covers Sindh.

In a book called "The Way of the World" Ron Suskind mentions Raisani (the politician) as receiving regular stipends of money fromthe UK and US as well as France. I can also inform you from an Indian source I have that the US has sort of muscled out/made subordinate the Indian control over Baloch resistance groups like the Baloch Republican Army and the infamous BLA. The Afghan side handlers of these men are trying to re-orient them towards hunting Al-Qaeda/Taliban and recoinnoitring the Iranian frontier. Thats Balochistan. Of course these networks aren't necessarilyeffective otherwise they would have gotten some results. But they're there.

That leaves FATA. Which is where the Frontier Corps and SBlackwater/Kestral's political contacts in Sindhi/Baloch political circles and the Interior Ministry come in. This is where they would likely be doing their assasination via drone/but also intel gathering for the Afghan occupation plus attempts at interdicting the Taliban plus training up the Frontier Corps. And this is where they try to act sometimes as boots on the ground, likely out of either boredom or necessity or even both.

Anonymous said...

I have a question: What does Scahill's expertise have to do with the truth of his piece, if his sources are in doubt? If his sources are in doubt, does his expertise matter?

black said...

Blackwater is associated with kidnapping, prostitution, tax evasion, gun running, weapons stockpiling, recruiting death squad paramilitary personnel from Latin America and defrauding US taxpayers. Blackwater operates without oversight, transparency or accountability. For more information visit

Cynic said...

"Blackwater has shifted its operational focus to two venues: protecting things that are in danger and anticipating other places we're going to go as a nation that are dangerous."
Is it just me who thinks the last lines of the article are the most alarming ones?

Anonymous said...

The Nation report mentions Blackwater ops posing as aid workers presumably to gather intelligence for drone attacks. If true all I can say is sad day for aid workers in Pakistan or anywhere else thanks to Blackwater they will be targeted for assassination, kidnap and torture to a greater degree than at present.