As he bats down allegations that he ran an off-the-books spy operation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a civilian Defense Department official has been locked out of his office at Lackland AFB and remains cautious about who visits him at his San Antonio apartment.
In interviews Tuesday and Wednesday with the San Antonio Express-News, Michael D. Furlong, 56, said a report earlier this week in the New York Times incorrectly portrayed the now-suspended program he ran.
He denied allegations that he inappropriately diverted millions of dollars for the operation and said his military superiors approved the program, which at one point was supervised by U.S. commanders and a separate NATO command.
Furlong is accused of using civilian subcontractors to secretly collect information that later was used to target and kill suspected militants.
Furlong claimed Robert Young Pelton — who hosted cable TV’s “The World’s Most Dangerous Places” and was a government subcontractor related to Furlong’s program — reported “wild accusations” about him to the CIA as part of a “vendetta” that stoked the agency to complain to the Defense Department that the program invaded its turf.
He contended that CIA officials were briefed about the program’s concept and a legal opinion was sought that deemed the eventual operation lawful.
But the Pentagon has launched internal and criminal investigations of Furlong and millions of dollars spent on the program.
But Pelton said Furlong tricked him and his business partner into believing the program was meant to gather cultural and political information in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that Furlong added components to it meant to gather intelligence that could have resulted in people working for his company — or suspected militants — getting killed.
“No, we’re not engaged in a vendetta against Michael Furlong,” Pelton said in an interview.
He added that Furlong’s accusations are an attempt to deflect blame for his own ill-advised actions.
Pelton also denied having made any claims to the CIA about Furlong.
“That’s a figment of Mr. Furlong’s quite imaginative paranoia,” Pelton said.
Furlong said he has been denied access to documents and e-mails he says can verify his story.
“This is not about anything but providing the best force protection we can provide all of those 20-somethings in foxholes,” Furlong said. “It’s about saving lives.”
The Express-News was unable to independently verify many of Furlong’s claims because the military also clamped down in light of the investigations.
The Defense Department said it was investigating the allegations in the Times report, and Furlong’s claims after being informed of them by the Express-News.
“The department is in the process of gathering the facts surrounding these allegations to determine if there was any inappropriate conduct,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said by e-mail. “If any improprieties are found, the department will take appropriate corrective action.”
A U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said in response to Furlong’s claims: “Both DOD and CIA opposed what this individual (Furlong) was trying to do. If this activity was fully authorized by the top military brass, you’ve got to ask yourself why DOD launched an investigation. It was DOD that shut it down, after all.”
“This wasn’t a case of turf. It was something that struck both military and intelligence officials as a serious head-scratcher.”
Jeff Addicott, the former senior legal adviser to U.S. Army special forces, said civilian contractors are relied on heavily by the military and can be used in defensive operations, but not in offensive scenarios.
“I would say if we are using them to gather intelligence, we are not violating the law of war as long as they are not pulling the trigger,” said Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University. “But if they’re involved in the offensive use of violence, that would be a violation.”
Furlong said the outsourced, unarmed teams he used didn’t go around “kicking in doors” and killing people.
He said Pelton’s claims to the Times that Furlong referred to his teams of contractors as “my Jason Bournes” — a movie character spy — was fantasy concocted by Pelton.
Furlong said Pelton was upset his company didn’t get the entire $24.8 million funding that Furlong was able to get through various “contract vehicles” to fund the program.
Pelton called Furlong’s allegations self-serving and untruthful.
While the contractors included former operatives of the CIA and military special operations forces, Furlong said their role was to collect information that is openly available, such as banter at markets or bazaars that might contain information about potential attacks on U.S. interests.
In the pipeline
Furlong said their information helped prevent assassinations of two Afghani government officials friendly to the U.S.
“I take stuff in open source and throw it in the intelligence pipeline,” Furlong said. “I don’t take this information and go directly to a kill. It is not the spot and shoot operation that he (Pelton) is making it sound like.”
Furlong is retired from the Army and said he is a principal strategist, a civilian employee of the Senior Executive Service, for the Nebraska-based U.S. Strategic Command, which runs the Joint Information Operations Warfare Center at Lackland AFB in San Antonio.
The center provides global support for U.S. combat commanders, but the matters involving Furlong’s controversial acts occurred while Furlong was detailed to U.S. Central Command, which is running theater operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Furlong said the origins of the program date to July 2008, when U.S. forces suffered a blow by an ambush at Wanat, Afghanistan.
He said Army Gen. David McKiernan, then the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, reached out to the military’s in-house network and Furlong was called in because of his experience in psychological operations.
“McKiernan was fit to be tied,” Furlong said. “He said to me, ‘I need to know what’s going on outside the wire. How can this surprise attack happen to us?’”
Furlong said he was asked to provide a “commercial information service that would enhance our situation understanding of the environment” and offered a proposal using former journalists to provide “ground truth.”
But Pelton, who also has written books about war zones, offered a different account.
He said he and his business partner, Eason Jordan, a former television news executive, had previously set up a pay-for-access Web site about Iraq, iraqslogger.com, and had no input from Furlong.
Pelton said McKiernan provided $1 million from his command’s contingency funds for Pelton and Jordan to operate another Web site that collected information about Afghanistan and Pakistan from open sources and to produce reports and analyses.
Pelton said Furlong was at the meeting with McKiernan, and Furlong said he could fund the proposal, known as AfPax Insider.
McKiernan was fired last May by the Obama administration in what some speculated was an attempt to jump-start a new war strategy that relied more on counterinsurgency tactics and less on conventional warfare.
Reached by phone by the Express-News, the now-retired McKiernan declined comment on the matter.
The AfPax Insider Web site was launched after that meeting, but Pelton said initial payments were delayed for unknown reasons until February 2009, and then were provided through St. Petersburg, Fla.-based International Media Ventures.
That company didn’t respond to the Express-News’ requests for comment.
Furlong said he ran into hurdles in getting the program going, in part, because the CIA “pushed back” and wanted a legal review of his proposal. Such a review was done and the conceptual program was found to be lawful, Furlong said.
Furlong also said he obtained $24.8 million in funding for the program under the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, a Pentagon research organization meant to help reduce the threats from roadside bombs.
But Pelton and Eason, Furlong said, were removed from the project in September after Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the top military spokesman in Afghanistan and Furlong’s boss, decided he didn’t want AfPax’s services.
And, Furlong said, a review of its services showed it “over-promised and under-delivered.”
The work then was given to other International Media Ventures’ subcontractors who did better, he said. Furlong declined to identify them for security reasons, but the New York Times identified one as Boston-based American International Services Corp., run by a former Green Beret.
Pelton, Furlong said, sent him an e-mail stating that, if AfPax didn’t get reinstated, he would “blow this whole operation up,” something Pelton denies.
Last fall, the New York Times reported, the CIA’s station chief in Kabul sent a cable to the Defense Department complaining that Furlong was doing things illegally. It eventually resulted in the military ending the program several months before its May 31 completion.
Furlong’s version also clashes with the claims of Smith, who told the Times he wasn’t aware of what International Media Ventures employees might be doing in Afghanistan in relation to Furlong’s program.
Smith also told the Times he opposed AfPax’s proposals, and that Furlong wanted to spend whatever money was left over elsewhere. Smith said $15 million was unaccounted for, and that he had no idea where the money went.
Furlong disputed this, saying Smith had a representative at a program review last month in Tampa.
“This event (the Feb. 12 review) reflected that all the funds and contractor deliverables were accounted for,” Furlong said. “One thing I am not is a crook.”