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Report: CIA Hired Blackwater to Help With Hit Squads

The controversial private contractor Blackwater was enlisted by the CIA during the Bush administration for a secret plan to form anti-Al Qaeda hit squads, the New York Times reported Wednesday night, citing unnamed sources familiar with the plan.

The hit squad proposal, when revealed this summer, caused an uproar because congressional leaders hadn't yet been briefed. The program apparently never got off the ground, and President Obama's CIA director, Leon Panetta, canceled the program as soon as he learned of it before notifying Congress.

However, the Times reports that in 2004, the CIA went as far as hiring Blackwater for a still unknown role in the secret program, which was intended to kill high-value members of Al Qaeda abroad.

Blackwater, itself, has drawn fire for its past government work in combat zones, raising questions of accountability.

The company didn't have a formal contract with the CIA, but rather agreements with company leaders, the Times reported. But Blackwater's work ended years ago when senior CIA officials questions the company's involvement.

The newspaper said Paul Gimigliano, a CIA spokesman, declined to provide details about the canceled program, but he said Panetta's decision on the assassination program was "clear and straightforward."

"Director Panetta thought this effort should be briefed to Congress, and he did so," the newspaper quoted Gimigliano as saying. "He also knew it hadn't been successful, so he ended it."

Blackwater has since changed its name to Xe Services in an attempt to shed its negative reputation.

The House Intelligence Committee has vowed to investigate whether the CIA broke the law by not informing Congress earlier about the secret plan. The National Security Act requires, with rare exceptions, that Congress be informed of covert activities.

CIA Director Leon Panetta told the committee about the program on June 24, a day after he first learned of the program.

Panetta told the committee that as vice president Dick Cheney had directed the CIA not to inform Congress about the operation, sparking an outcry among Democrats.

Republicans have dismissed Democratic outrage about the Panetta revelation as an attempt to provide political cover to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in May accused the CIA of lying to her in 2002 about its use of waterboarding.

Pelosi has said the House and Senate intelligence committees should "take whatever actions they believe are necessary to get more information on the subject," including whether former Vice President Dick Cheney played a direct role in proposing the secret program and withholding information from Congress.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has criticized the panel's investigation as "partisan, political theater." He said he would support a "balanced review," but contended Democrats were prematurely accusing the CIA of breaking the law.

Phone calls and e-mails made by the Associated Press late Wednesday to intelligence officials seeking comment on the Times report were not immediately answered.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.