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Posted at 6:25 PM ET, 05/25/2010

Setting the record straight on 'contractor' spies

By Jeff Stein

Robert Young Pelton spent years investigating counterterrorism mercenaries, so the last thing he expected was to be branded one himself.

Yet there he was on the front page of the New York Times on March 14, his color picture flanked by photos of legendary ex-CIA official Duane R. Clarridge and Michael D. Furlong, a Pentagon psychological warfare official.

The headline: “Contractors Tied to Effort to Track and Kill Militants.”

Today the Times corrected the story.

“An earlier version of this story and an accompanying picture caption misstated the occupation of Robert Young Pelton,” The Times said in a note added to the bottom of its story.

“He is a writer, not a government contractor.”

“When I saw my picture next to Dewey Clarridge’s, I said, ‘You’ve got to be [kidding] me,’ ” Pelton recalled in an interview. “I’m suddenly the [kind of] guy I investigated.”

Pelton’s 2006 book, “Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror,” was one in a series of action-adventure books he’s authored, including “The World’s Most Dangerous Places.

As it turned out, however, Washington turned out to be one of the world’s most dangerous places for Pelton and Eason Jordon, a former top CNN executive who was his partner in AfPax, a Web site reporting on the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Following the Times’s story, both men said, AfPax, which was designed to provide paying customers with inside dope on the insurgencies, was forced to shut down.

“It became a safety issue,” Jordan said. AfPax’s employees could be branded as spies and killed because of the publicity, they feared.

It’s an object lesson in trying to mix a news-gathering operation with the Pentagon in a time of war.

The idea was that the U.S. command in Afghanistan would just be another subscriber -- actually, a large bundle of subscribers.

“We weren’t pitching anything that would involve spying,” Pelton said.

In his telling, he and Jordan were innocents trying to do well by doing good -- providing granular reporting on the war zones for anyone who wanted or needed it, including the U.S. commander in Afghanistan -- but were drawn into a web of trickery and deceit.

Then, according to Pelton and The Times, a mysterious Defense Department “information operations” official, Michael D. Furlong, diverted millions of dollars pledged to AfPax into a network of private spies in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas.

In the welter of details in the Times’ March 14 story, and another May 16, it looked like Jordan and Pelton had unwittingly provided cover for Furlong’s spy network, and information for Pentagon targeters.

“We were providing information so they could better understand the situation in Afghanistan, and it was being used to kill people,” Pelton told the paper.

AfPax never did anything furtive, he and Jordan insisted. Modeled on a predecessor site Jordan had set up in Baghdad, called IraqSlogger, AfPax’s employees interviewed local officials, including militia leaders, and wrote reports on the general situation out in the provinces.

“From the outset, AfPax was meant to be a premium subscription information service -- as was IraqSlogger -- but funding challenges prevented us from launching the full-fledged service as planned,” Jordan said.

“All AfPax work was done openly using open source channels and using journalists and researchers in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. who at all times identified themselves as AfPax representatives,” he added.

“More than 95% of our work” Jordan continued, “was published for all to read at no cost on the AfPax Web site, which was read by many [mostly non-government] people in several countries -- private sector, think tank analysts, and employees of several governments.”

As such, it was kind of a war-reporting version of Congressional Quarterly, whose main clients -- lobbyists, corporations with government business and government agencies themselves -- pay a premium for specialized legislative information.

But Jordan and Pelton say they did not get paid up front.

From July 2008, Pelton says, when the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, pledged a down payment from his discretionary fund “because he wanted to get started right away,” to the day Pelton and Jordan pulled the plug, AfPax received only a fraction of the $22 million subscription they were promised, they said.

“We never transitioned the Web site out of a free beta mode into a premium subscription service,” Jordan said, “because funding for our business fell short of requirements to go forward with full-fledged launch.”

AfPax’s budget, Pelton said, was roughly equivalent to the cost of running a major foreign news bureau in the war zone, $1.5- $2 million a month.

“There is a bright red line between information gathering for open source reporting and information gathering for classified use by intelligence agencies,” said Tom Johnson, chairman and chief executive of CNN for a decade in the 1990s, in an interview.

Jordan was his protégé.

Based on what he’d read in the Times and elsewhere, Johnson said, "I said repeatedly to Eason that he was getting into a zone of significant risk to his reputation."

"Eason told me," he added, "his organization gathered information for open source use and that he did not violate my guidance."

By Jeff Stein  | May 25, 2010; 6:25 PM ET
Tags:  CNN, Eason Jordan, Michael D. Furlong, Robert Young Pelton  
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