Nightly News   |  October 31, 2014

CIA hired Blackwater as al-Qaida hit men

Aug. 20: Despite having been under investigation for crimes in Iraq, the private security contractor was hired by the Central Intelligence Agency 2004 to locate and assassinate top operatives of al-Qaida. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

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ANN CURRY, anchor: In other news, a secret CIA plan has come to light that puts the controversial private security contractor Blackwater back in the news. There are reports now that the CIA hired employees of Blackwater in 2004 , intending to have them help track down and kill top al-Qaeda members. More on this tonight from our chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell .

ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: The firm that use to be called Blackwater was already under fire. Five of its guards are still awaiting trial on voluntary manslaughter charges for killing Iraqi civilians in Baghdad two years ago. A sixth pleaded guilty. Blackwater was ordered out of Iraq last January. The company changed its name to Xe , but many of its guards were rehired by another security firm and are still guarding US officials in Iraq and Afghanistan , while the renamed Blackwater is still being paid millions for air operations in Afghanistan , and government use of its training camp in North Carolina . Why would the CIA outsource a top secret operation to what many call a rogue company ?

Unidentified Man: We really should be focusing on why can't the US government put together a program to find these terrorist kingpins and take them out in a legal way, and that's really the issue.

MITCHELL: Officials say Blackwater helped train agents to track al-Qaeda in places like London and Paris outside of war zones, but quickly ran into diplomatic roadblocks.

Mr. DAVID IGNATIUS (Intelligence Expert): The idea that we would give contractors the authority to use lethal force abroad in friendly countries where there could be enormous blowback, as the CIA likes to say, strikes me as crazy.

MITCHELL: Still unclear, what role, if any, this man played, Cofer Black , in charge of counterterrorism for the CIA and then the State Department for three years after 9/11. Who hired him when he left? Blackwater. Tonight Blackwater , operating under its new corporate name, did not respond to requests for comment. The company and its former CEO are still under federal grand jury investigation in North Carolina for potential crimes in Iraq . But today former CIA director Michael Hayden defended the outsourcing.

Mr. MICHAEL HAYDEN: We do not use contractors to carve out something we do -- we want to deflect responsibility for. That is simply wrong.

MITCHELL: Still , critics say the CIA was trying to protect its reputation by hiring contractors to do its dirty work. Andrea Mitchell, NBC News, Washington.