WASHINGTON - When the CIA revived a plan to kill or capture terrorists in 2004, the agency turned to the well-connected security company then known as Blackwater USA.
With Blackwater's lucrative government security work and contacts arrayed in hot spots around the world, company officials offered the services of foreigners supposedly skilled at tracking terrorists in lawless regions and countries where the CIA had no working relationships with the government.
Blackwater told the CIA that it "could put people on the ground to provide the surveillance and support - all of the things you need to conduct an operation," a former senior CIA official familiar with the secret program told The Associated Press.
But the CIA's use of the private contractor as part of its now-abandoned plan to dispatch death squads skirted concerns now re-emerging with recent disclosures about Blackwater's role.
The former senior CIA official said he had doubts during his tenure about whether Blackwater's foreign recruits had mastered the necessary skills to pull off such a high-stakes operation.
While Blackwater won the government's confidence by handling security and training operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2004 decision by the CIA to entrust the North Carolina-based company with such a sensitive overseas operation struck some former agency officials as highly unusual.
"The question remains: Why do we need Blackwater?" said Charles Faddis, a former department chief at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center who retired in 2008 and was not involved in the secret program.
The former senior CIA official who had knowledge of the program explained that "you wouldn't want to have American fingerprints on it."
The former official and several other current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information remains classified.
A message left with Xe spokeswoman Stacy DeLuke was not returned. Blackwater changed its corporate name to Xe Services after a series of controversies, including a September 2007 shooting in Baghdad by five company security guards that left 17 civilians dead.
When the current CIA director, Leon Panetta, terminated the death squads in June and informed congressional intelligence committees about its existence the disclosure created a political firestorm.