Donald Trump's super-secret spy team? This loony scheme is way too plausible

Erik Prince and Oliver North are supposedly scheming to defeat the "Deep State" with a private Trumpian spy squad

By Heather Digby Parton


Published December 6, 2017 8:02AM (EST)

Erik Prince; Oliver North (AP/Gerry Broome/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Erik Prince; Oliver North (AP/Gerry Broome/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

One unusual bright spot in these dark days has been the fact that some of the worst kooks in the Trump administration have been sent back to the private sector. The most obvious example is former Gen. Mike Flynn, who was in a very sensitive position and seemed to be coming unhinged. But Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka are also out of the White House, along with the colorful if short-lived communications director, Anthony Scaramucci.

Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that there are no long any influential weirdos around Donald Trump. Bannon is said to be in regular contact with the president, encouraging his worst impulses as usual. The glowering anti-immigration zealot Stephen Miller remains at Trump's side. And some of the worst outside influences remain in Trump's orbit, even through they've never had an official position in his campaign or his administration. The scariest of those is Erik Prince, CEO of the notorious "private contractor" company Academi -- formerly known as Blackwater -- who is busily pitching one crackpot idea after another.

Prince is the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and a longtime friend of Vice President Mike Pence. His history during the Iraq War as the head of Blackwater, which was essentially an unaccountable mercenary army, made him infamous. But his closeness with Donald Trump's administration has put him in the spotlight frequently over the last year, and every new story about him is more bizarre than the last.

Back in August, there was a flurry of reporting about Bannon and Prince's plan to privatize the war in Afghanistan based upon the colonial model of the British East India Company of the 19th century, including a post for Prince himself as the country's "viceroy." This concept was especially tailored to Trump, who can't understand why the military hasn't "won" since he ordered them to get 'er done. It particularly intrigued him when he was made aware that there are minerals in Afghanistan that he believes should rightly belong to the U.S. Fortunately, the proposal was quickly shot down by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

Bannon recently floated Prince's name as a possible primary challenger against Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, a conservative Republican. Previous reporting that Prince had acted as a conduit to Russia for the Trump transition team, traveling to the Seychelles Islands to meet with a Russian banker, has finally been confirmed. After months of waffling and denial, Prince finally admitted it in congressional testimony last week.

But all that is nothing compared to the bombshell report by Matthew Cole and Jeremy Scahill in the Intercept, which says, among other things, that the Afghanistan "viceroy" plan was actually an elaborate smokescreen for some even loonier schemes. According to numerous sources -- and accompanied by official denials from the White House -- the Trump administration is considering creating a private spy network to be run by Prince, legendary Iran-Contra figure Oliver North and a right-wing clandestine agent from the Reagan administration named John Maguire. Its goal would be to go around the intelligence community and gather information on its own for CIA Director Mike Pompeo and President Trump.

This is allegedly in response to what Trump, Pompeo and others perceive as a "Deep State" that is hostile to Trump. Cole and Scahill quote a former senior intelligence official paraphrasing White House discussions of the plan: "Pompeo can't trust the CIA bureaucracy, so we need to create this thing that reports just directly to him. The whole point is this is supposed to report to the president and Pompeo directly."

Maguire was on the Trump transition team and is apparently convinced that Deep State operators plan to "kick the president out of office within a year" and must be stopped. He has reportedly told at least two people that he believes National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster ordered surveillance on Bannon, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. and has "used a burner phone to send information gathered through the surveillance to a facility in Cyprus owned by George Soros." Doesn't this sound like just the kind of person you'd want around Donald Trump?

This plan is big. According to Cole and Scahill's reporting, these guys would task the private spooks to gather intelligence all over the world, even in places like North Korea and Iran, where normal U.S. intelligence operations are extremely limited. A new global rendition program to kidnap and interrogate suspected terrorists is also being contemplated, along with a major Middle East propaganda effort.

The White House adamantly denies that any of this is true, but the Intercept and another report by BuzzFeed on the same subject have numerous sources confirming it. While one is tempted to say that this is just another Trump presidency sideshow, recall that Prince was taken very seriously by the George W. Bush administration before his company's "brand" was tarnished with its unfortunate habit of committing war crimes. Some of Blackwater's adventures during those days form the template for Prince's current plans. As Cole and Scahill remind us:

When Prince was running Blackwater, he and a former CIA paramilitary officer, Enrique Prado, set up a global network of foreign operatives, offering their “deniability” as a “big plus” for potential Blackwater customers, according to internal company communications obtained by The Intercept.

In a 2007 email, with the subject “Possible Opportunity in DEA—READ AND DELETE,” Prado sought to pitch the network to the Drug Enforcement Administration, bragging that Blackwater had developed “a rapidly growing, worldwide network of folks that can do everything from surveillance to ground truth to disruption operations.” He added, “These are all foreign nationals (except for a few cases where US persons are the conduit but no longer ‘play’ on the street), so deniability is built in and should be a big plus.” The longtime Prince associate said that the nexus of deniable assets has never gone away. “The NOC network is already there. It already exists for the better part of 15 years now,” he said.

Why let a good privatized "NOC network" (i.e., spies with "no official cover") go to waste?

This seems very much like something that would thrill Trump. He could have his very own secret intelligence agency to do all the things the "Deep State" won't do -- like spy on political opponents and conduct economic espionage on behalf of The Trump Organization. It's not as if these people have any scruples.

But there's one huge problem with this plan. Trump can't keep his mouth shut. He couldn't even stop himself from admitting on TV that he fired James Comey over the Russia investigation. The next day he had to boast about it to the Russian ambassador and pass on some sensitive Israeli intelligence to impress them with his "great intel." Does anyone think he could stop himself from bragging about his special private spooks, who are better than any of the official spies who can't do anything right? Of course not. If this operation exists and Trump knows about it, it won't remain a secret for long.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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