COMMENTS: Hired Guns & Terrrorist Wannabes

A pair of contrasting stories about American civilians getting caught up in the fighting along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border surfaced--one incompetent, one sinister.

ABC's Brian Ross filed the sinister angle, reporting from unidentified "current and former military and intelligence officials" that the Central Intelligence Agency illegally hired mercenaries for clandestine border raids. "The use of private contractors is one way to help keep certain activities off the books," Tony Shaffer, a retired colonel, told Ross. The mercenaries were hired from Blackwater, the security contracting firm. Ross cited a pair of specific operations: two contractors were killed in an ambush in 2003 while searching for al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan; and in October 2006 twelve Blackwater mercenaries "were recruited for a secret mission to attack an al-Qaeda camp across the border in Pakistan" in an operation dubbed Vibrant Fury. Ross reported that Director Leon Panetta has canceled a secret CIA contract with Blackwater "and ordered a review of others."

The incompetent angle concerned the five students from the Washington DC area who are being held in a Pakistani jail in Punjab Province on suspicion of being terrorist wannabes. NBC's Pete Williams reported on the group Thursday, quoting sources as calling them "jokers" and suspecting that they got cold feet after they arrived. Now CBS' Bob Orr quotes Pakistani police as saying that they "immediately raised suspicions when they tried to hook up with two separate terrorist groups. They were not successful, turned away as westerners who did not speak the local language." ABC's David Wright also quoted police sources in Pakistan: "Two extremist groups actually rejected the young men, not convinced that they were serious."

A shambolic tone surrounds the coverage of these five. It is not even clear who they are. CBS' Orr identified them by their mugshots three times: twice he called them Hussain-Zamzam-Hassan-Abdullah-Farooq; then he called them Khan-Zamzam-Yamer-Abdulminni-Farooq. ABC's Wright used full names, some the same as Orr's, others were variations: Waqar Hussain Khan, Rami Zamzam, Aman Yemer, Ahmed Minni, Umar Farooq.


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