By removing himself from the decision-making cycle, the president shielded himself -- and all elected authority -- from responsibility should a mission go wrong or be found illegal.
"When the CIA transferred the assassination unit to Blackwater, it continued the trend. CIA officers would no longer participate in the agency's most violent operations, or witness them. If it practiced any oversight at all, the CIA would rely on Blackwater's self-reporting about missions it conducted.
"Running operations through Blackwater gave the CIA the power to have people abducted, or killed, with no one in the government being exactly responsible." None of this is new information, though I imagine that many people reading this item are hearing about it for the first time."
Isn't that bizarre?
The bulk of Wright's e-book (full disclosure: I help edit the website of Byliner, publisher of the e-book) tells the story of Enrique Prado, a high-ranking CIA-officer-turned-Blackwater-employee who oversaw assassination units for both the CIA and the contractor.
To whom was this awesome responsibility entrusted? According to Wright's investigation, a federal organized crime squad run out of the Miami-Dade Police Department produced an investigation allegedly tying Prado to seven murders carried out while he worked as a bodyguard for a narco crime boss. At the time, the CIA declared him unavailable for questioning; the investigation was shut down before he was arrested or tried.
There's a lot more to the story -- Wright's e-book is almost 50 pages long -- but this bit is of particular note:
"The reporting on Prado's activities at Blackwater produced no evidence that the firm's employees had ever killed anyone on behalf of the CIA. But I spoke to Blackwater employees who insisted that they had. Two Blackwater contractors told me that their firm began conducting assassinations in Afghanistan as early as 2008. They claimed to have participated in such operations -- one in a support role, the other as a "trigger puller." The contractors, to whom I spoke in 2009 and 2010, were both ex-Special Forces soldiers who were not particularly bothered by assassination work, although they did question the legality of Blackwater's involvement in it.
"According to the "trigger puller," he and a partner were selected for one such operation because they were Mexican Americans, whose darker skin enabled them to blend in as Afghan civilians. The first mission he described took place in 2008. He and his partner spent three weeks training outside Kabul, becoming accustomed to walking barefoot like Afghans while toting weapons underneath their jackets. Their mission centered on walking into a market and killing the occupant of a pickup truck, whose identity a CIA case worker had provided to them. They succeeded in their mission, he told me, and moved on to another. This contractor's story didn't completely fit with other accounts about Prado's unit at Blackwater. The e-mail written by Prado and later obtained by the Times seemed to indicate that the unit wouldn't use Americans to carry out actual assassinations. Moreover, two CIA sources insisted that the contractors I spoke to were lying. As one put it, "These guys are security guards who want to look like Rambo."
"When I asked Ed O'Connell, a former Air Force colonel and RAND analyst with robust intelligence experience in Afghanistan, to evaluate these contractors' claims, he first told me they were almost certainly a "fantastical crock of shit." But a year later, in 2011, after a research trip in Afghanistan for his firm Alternative Strategies Institute, O'Connell had changed his assessment. He told me, "Your sources seem to have been correct. Private contractors are whacking people like crazy over in Afghanistan for the CIA."
So there you have it: A former Air Force lieutenant colonel, speaking on the record and using the present tense, said in 2011 that "private contractors are whacking people like crazy over in Afghanistan for the CIA."
"While Blackwater's covert unit began as a Bush administration story, President Obama now owns it. In 2010, his administration intervened on behalf of the Blackwater executives indicted for weapons trafficking, filing motions to suppress evidence on the grounds that it could compromise national security. The administration then awarded Blackwater (which is now called Academi) a $250 million contract to perform unspecified services for the CIA.
"At the same time, Obama has publicly taken responsibility for some lethal operations -- the Navy SEALs' sniper attack on Somali pirates, the raid on bin Laden. His aides have also said that he reviews target lists for drone strikes. The president's actions give him the appearance of a man who wants the best of both worlds. He appears as a tough, resolute leader when he announces his role in killings that will likely be popular -- a pirate, a terrorist. But the apparatus for less accountable killings grinds on.
Needless to say, this ought to spark an investigation, but more than that, it should cause Americans to step back and reflect on how vulnerable we've made ourselves to bad actors in the post-9/11 era. We're giving C.I.A. agents and even private security contractors the sort of power no individual should wield. And apparently our screening apparatus turns out to be lacking.
*** Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
(In an exclusive excerpt from his new Byliner Original, How to Get Away with Murder in America, he shares the story of what he uncovered.)
In 2008, Jon Roberts, a convicted cocaine trafficker, made a startling claim to me: that more than three decades earlier he had participated in a murder with a man named Ricky Prado, who later entered the Central Intelligence Agency and became a top American spy. The murder to which Roberts referred was one of Miamiâ€™s most infamous, that of Richard Schwartz, stepson of the legendary mobster Meyer Lansky. Schwartz was killed on the morning of October 12, 1977, behind a restaurant. He was exiting his car when a person unknown approached him and fired twice with a shotgun. The murder has never been solved.
Roberts claimed that Prado was the shooter, provided by a local Cuban drug kingpin named Alberto â€œAlbertâ€ San Pedro, for whom Prado worked as an enforcer and occasional hit man. What made Robertsâ€™s story unbelievable was his claim that shortly after the shooting, Prado joined the CIA.
Not long after Roberts told his tale, I found there was a CIA officer named Enrique "Ricky" Prado, who joined the agency in 1982 and eventually attained the rank of SIS-2, the equivalent of a two-star general. He served as a supervisor in the bin Laden unit, and by the time of the 9/11 attacks, he was a top official in the CIA's counterterrorist center. He later ran the "targeted assassination unit"â€”first at the agency and then at Blackwater, where he served as vice-president from 2004 to 2008. During much of his career in and out of the CIA, Prado worked closely with J. Cofer Black, now a top adviser to Mitt Romney.
It was impossible to believe that Roberts's allegations about Prado had merit until I found long- suppressed files from a 1991 federal RICO and murder investigation that targeted Prado for his alleged role as a criminal enforcer for San Pedro prior to joining the CIA. No charges were filed against Prado. A subpoena compelling him to testify before a federal grand jury was quashed. His rise in the CIA continued after the case disappeared. Officers who know him described him to me as a â€œgood guy.â€
But law enforcement officials from the 1991 investigation tell a different story. In interviews I conducted with more than a dozen, they offered a disturbing portrait of a case abandoned because of CIA intervention, political maneuvering, and corruption. Their evidence linked Prado not just to the Schwartz murder, but to several others. They also revealed Prado's continued association with San Pedro long after he joined the agency.
â€œIt was a miscarriage of justice that Prado never faced charges,â€ says Mike Fisten, a former Miami- Dade detective who served on the federal task force. â€œThe CIA fought us tooth and nail, and basically told us to go fuck ourselves.â€ Echoing other investigators, Fisten says that Prado beat the case because of his former boss Albert San Pedroâ€™s â€œpower to corrupt the American justice system.â€
Central Intelligence Agency
â€˜How to Get Away with Murder in America: Drug Lords, Dirty Pols, Obsessed Cops and the Quiet Man Who Became the CIAâ€™s Master Killerâ€™ By Evan Wright. 124p. Byliner. $2.99. (left: Saul Loeb, AFP / Getty Images)
Fisten adds, â€œRicky and Albert are two sides of the same coin, gangster and CIA officer. Those two are always connected. You canâ€™t get one without the other.â€
Ricky and Albert
Albert San Pedro, speaking unknowingly into an undercover copâ€™s tape recorder, once shared the quality he valued most in men who worked for him: â€œThe best man is the quiet man.â€ Prado is the consummate quiet man. He was born Enrique Alejandro Prado on May 3, 1950, in Santa Clara, Cuba. The Prados were on the losing side of the revolution in 1959, and soon afterwards they fled to Miami. Enrique Sr. opened a lawn-mower shop and later became a locksmith.
Ricky and Albert San Pedro met around 1966 at Miami Springs High School. They shared a passion for weight lifting. About this time, Albert also started his first business: For fifty dollars, he would kick anybodyâ€™s ass. â€œIf Albert couldnâ€™t take someone physically, he would use a baseball bat, a tire iron, whatever,â€ says "Teo," a friend of theirs. â€œHe was like a mobster guy already. Ricky was always by his side. He was his lieutenant.â€
While other kids rode the currents of free love sweeping the nation in the late 1960s, Albert and Ricky went in the opposite direction. They kept their hair short and pomaded it back in ducktails. They didnâ€™t smoke weedâ€”though Albert would soon start selling it. Albert acquired a Chevy Chevelle SS muscle car. â€œWhen people saw that car coming,â€ says Teo, â€œthey ran.â€
After graduation, Ricky joined the military. A recruiter talked him into entering the Air Force special operations branch.
Albert still lived with his parents, but as profits from his nascent cocaine business rolled in, he reinvented his image from neighborhood bully to shot caller. Neighbors began referring to the twenty-four-year-old as the â€œMayor of Hialeah.â€
In 1973, Ricky was posted to Homestead Air Force base. In military terms, his special operations certification was like a Harvard MBA, but in the civilian job market, skills in knife fighting and improvised bomb making werenâ€™t much in demand. He gravitated back to Albert and began doing odd jobs for himâ€”providing muscle, delivering packages. Albert found a way for Ricky and other toughs who worked for him to legally carry weapons: He founded the Transworld Detective Agency. The companyâ€™s corporate filings listed Albertâ€™s house as its headquarters and Ricky as its â€œpresident of records.â€
In 1980, Ricky began sending applications to federal agencies. He told his wife that the State Department had hired him. They moved to Seabrook, Maryland, and he put on a suit every morning, telling his wife he â€œworked in a lab doing medical work.â€ He was in fact a recruit in the CIA's paramilitary officer program, and would soon be on his way to fight the agency's covert war to arm the contras in Central America. Somehow, the agency either missed or ignored his long association with Albert, who by then had been identified by law enforcement as one of the ten biggest cocaine traffickers in South Florida.
On June 29, 1991, the RICO task force sent FBI Special Agent Fred Harden and Miami-Dade homicide sergeant Al Singleton to CIA headquarters to interview Prado. Prado was forty-one. His hairline was receding, but he was visibly muscle-bound even in a suit. He carried himself with almost exaggerated military precision.
When Harden asked Ricky about his relationship with Albert, he said they were â€œclose friendsâ€ and admitted working for him as a bodyguard. He insisted he had no knowledge of Albertâ€™s cocaine trafficking and had never committed any violent acts for him. But when Singleton pitched him the idea of cooperating against Albert in exchange for immunity, Rickyâ€™s response floored the investigators. As noted in the federal report:
Prado advised that if he knew of any criminal activities on behalf of San Pedro, he would have to have protection. For example, if Prado witnessed San Pedro murder someone (and he is not implying that he did), Prado would definitely have to have protection for his family.
Believing they had secured his cooperation, Harden served Ricky with a subpoena to testify before a grand jury.
The task force prepared a thirty-four-page summary of twenty-nine acts with which to indict Ricky on RICO charges, but the U.S. Attorneyâ€™s office soon backed down. The CIA also ceased cooperating. â€œPeople started telling me that we were pissing upstream,â€ says Fisten. â€œBut my attitude was fuck the CIA. If they want to obstruct our RICO investigation, we had numerous murders to pursue against him.â€
Most people connected with the investigation moved on, but Fisten remains committed to a simple, if quixotic, proposition: â€œRicky and Albert are guilty of murder and need to go to prison for it.â€
Evan Wright's new Byliner Original, How to Get Away with Murder in America is available for $2.99 as a Kingle Single at Amazon, a Quick Read at Apple's iBookstore, and a NOOK Snap at BN.com.
+++ Evan Wright is the recipient of two National Magazine Awards and the author of the bestselling Generation Kill, Hella Nation, and American Desperado, which he co-wrote with Jon Roberts. His reporting has also been included in Best American Crime Writing. He co-wrote the HBO series Generation Kill, based on his book.