WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Monday he was reviewing the role of contractors in intelligence gathering, after accusations some helped track and kill militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Pentagon announced last week it was investigating “serious allegations” about a Defense Department employee who may have secretly channeled money to an off-the-books spy operation aimed at hunting militants.
Gates did not comment on those allegations specifically. But asked more broadly about allowing contractors to collect intelligence on the battlefield, Gates said: “Quite frankly, in principle, I would have concerns about that.”
“But I don’t know enough to know whether it took place, and, if so, whether there was value added,” he told reporters.
The accusations, first detailed in a New York Times report, centered on Michael D. Furlong, who the newspaper said hired contractors from private security companies that employed former CIA and Special Forces operatives.
Although his program was meant to provide U.S. commanders with details of Afghanistan’s social and tribal landscape, the contractors gathered intelligence on the whereabouts of suspected militants and the location of insurgent camps, the Times reported.
That material was sent to military units and intelligence officials for possible lethal action in Afghanistan and Pakistan, unnamed officials told the paper.
“In terms of the role of contractors — this is something I need to know more about, but we do have reviews and investigations going on to find out what the story is here, find out what the facts are,” Gates said.
“And if it’s necessary to make some changes, I’ll do that.”
Gates, a former director of the CIA, rejected any notion the Pentagon was stepping on the CIA’s toes in its intelligence gathering efforts.
“About 85 percent of the national intelligence budget is in the Pentagon budget and is for Pentagon agencies. So we are in the intelligence business,” he said.
“It’s critical to our success and to protecting the lives of our men and women in uniform.”
Furlong said in an interview last week with a newspaper, the San Antonio Express News, that his now-suspended program was fully authorized by the U.S. military.
The military has acknowledged Furlong was a civilian employee at the 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.”
Editing by Todd Eastham