From a secret division at its North Carolina headquarters, the company formerly known as Blackwater has assumed a role in Washington's most important counterterrorism program: the use of remotely piloted drones to kill al-Qaida's leaders, according to government officials and current and former employees.
The division's operations are carried out at hidden bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the company's contractors assemble and load Hellfire missiles and 500-pound laser-guided bombs on remotely piloted Predator aircraft, work previously performed by employees of the CIA. They also provide security at the covert bases, the officials said.
The role of the company in the Predator program highlights the degree to which the CIA depends on outside contractors to perform some of the agency's most important assignments. And it illustrates the resilience of Blackwater, now known as Xe Services. It has grown through government work, even as it attracted criticism and allegations of brutality in Iraq.
A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment for this article. A spokeswoman for Xe did not respond to a request for comment.
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The New York Times reported Thursday that the agency hired Blackwater in 2004 as part of a secret program to find and assassinate top al-Qaida operatives.
For its intelligence work, the company's headquarters in Moyock, N.C., has a special division, known as Blackwater Select. The company's first major arrangement with the CIA was signed in 2002, with a contract to provide security for the agency's station in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Blackwater employees assigned to the Predator bases receive training at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to learn how to load Hellfire missiles and laser-guided smart bombs on the drones, according to current and former employees, who asked not to be identified.
The CIA has for several years operated Predator drones out of a remote base in Shamsi, Pakistan, but has secretly added a second site at an air base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, several current and former government and company officials said. The existence of the Predator base in Jalalabad has not previously been reported.
Blackwater is not involved in selecting targets or actual strikes. The targets are selected by the CIA, and employees at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Va., pull the trigger remotely.