Military Outsources Rescue Ops, Secret Tagging Tech

In the American military, few missions are considered more important than rescuing missing or kidnapped troops. So it’s more than a little odd that U.S. forces in Iraq have decided to outsource that operation to a private company. The military’s Joint Contracting Command-Iraq/Afghanistan on Sunday handed out a one year, $11.3 million, no-bid contract to Blackbird Technologies Inc., declaring that the firm was “the only contractor that can currently provide the subject matter expertise needed” for personnel rescue operations.

It’s hardly the first military contract for Virginia-based Blackbird, originally founded in 1997 as an Internet security firm. In August, Blackbird won a massive, $450 million contract from the U.S. Navy to provide ”tagging, tracking and locating” gear and training to a wide swath of military units. In addition, Blackbird is currently assisting the armed forces in “locating people held captive or hostage under duress and assessing enemy vulnerabilities.” U.S. forces say they need the company to continue to “provid[e] staff and mission area expertise for PR [personnel recovery] operations, serve as a fusion nexus for intelligence operations to support PR, and operational oversight for subordinate operations.” In addition, the military expects Blackbird to provide everything from “crisis action planning” to “non-attributable internet research.”

“We’re not the guys that go out and kick down doors and bring out the Jessica Lynches of the world,” says retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Timur Eads,  who serves as Blackbird’s vice president of government relations. “We’re the guys in the background, assembling the forensic information, bringing all the threads together.” Sometimes, Eads tells Danger Room, that entails online research “where you appear to be entering the Internet from somewhere else.”

Beyond that, Eads won’t say much. “I can’t give the specifics of what we do, because the work is classified. But the reason we got this contract is because we have people with very unique skillsets that we can quickly bring together.”

The company says they’ve already got a crack team assembled for their rescue operations. But Blackbird is openly recruiting for “personnel recovery mission officers,” apparently to service this contract. Only applicants with a very specific background need apply. Blackbird wants each of the eight officers to have 10 years of special operations missions and a clearance of “Top Secret/SSBI with SCI eligibility.” But despite the sensitivity of this mission, and despite the exclusive resumes applicants need to provide, these positions are only “part-time.”

Blackbird is headquartered in Herndon, VA, with five branch offices nationwide. Blackbird’s website states that the company is a “technology solutions provider whose mission is to solve challenging problems for customers in the Defense, Intelligence, and Law Enforcement Communities.” They also advertise that the majority of their staff hold high-level clearances and handle “the most sensitive government and commercial matters.”

Various arms of the Department of Defense have awarded at least six different contracts to the company since 2003. The biggest, and most sensitive, of these deals is the nearly half-billion contract for “tagging, tracking, and locating” — military jargon for keeping tabs on troops and their potential enemies through clandestine means.

Usually, that TTL job is accomplished by putting an infrared, radio frequency, or satellite homing device on or around the target. The CIA, for instance, allegedly directs its drone strikes in Pakistan with the help of infrared beacons. Blackbird is responsible for “training all Army, Marine Corps, and Special Operations forces in the use and application” of these TTL tags, according to Eads. That includes “infrared beacons, satellite tags, and over-the-horizon tags.”

The idea is to give local U.S. commanders in places like Afghanistan the ability to “identify high-value targets in his sector.,” Eads says. That officer can also use the tags to trace the routes and attack points used by insurgent bombing networks. Blackbird also sells the gear to the various military branches, and embeds a company contractor with a military unit to service the equipment.

Eads and Blackbird were temporarily thrust into the spotlight in 2008. The company was also involved in the “Pentagon Pundits” imbroglio — retired military officers who were hired as news analysts for their Pentagon access. Blackbird’s Eads opined on military matters for Fox News.

Blackbird’s new contract is yet another example of the  government’s embrace of private firms in some of its most sensitive work. Among those killed last month by the Jordanian suicide bomber who infiltrated a C.I.A. base in Afghanistan were two contractors from the firm formerly known as Blackwater.

– Noah Shachtman and Darius Dixon

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