KABUL, Afghanistan — Under the cover of a benign government information-gathering program, a Defense Department official set up a network of private contractors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to help track and kill suspected militants, according to military officials and businessmen in Afghanistan and the United States.
The official, Michael D. Furlong, hired contractors from private security companies that employed former C.I.A. and Special Forces operatives. The contractors, in turn, gathered intelligence on the whereabouts of suspected militants and the location of insurgent camps, and the information was then sent to military units and intelligence officials for possible lethal action in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the officials said.
While it has been widely reported that the C.I.A. and the military are attacking operatives of Al Qaeda and others through unmanned, remote-controlled drone strikes, some American officials say they became troubled that Mr. Furlong seemed to be running an off-the-books spy operation. The officials say they are not sure who condoned and supervised his work.
It is generally considered illegal for the military to hire contractors to act as covert spies. Officials said Mr. Furlong’s secret network might have been improperly financed by diverting money from a program designed to merely gather information about the region.
Moreover, in Pakistan, where Qaeda and Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding, the secret use of private contractors may be seen as an attempt to get around the Pakistani government’s prohibition of American military personnel’s operating in the country.
Officials say Mr. Furlong’s operation seems to have been shut down, and he is now is the subject of a criminal investigation by the Defense Department for a number of possible offenses, including contract fraud.
Even in a region of the world known for intrigue, Mr. Furlong’s story stands out. At times, his operation featured a mysterious American company run by retired Special Operations officers and an iconic C.I.A. figure who had a role in some of the agency’s most famous episodes, including the Iran-Contra affair.
The allegations that he ran this network come as the American intelligence community confronts other instances in which private contractors may have been improperly used on delicate and questionable operations, including secret raids in Iraq and an assassinations program that was halted before it got off the ground.
“While no legitimate intelligence operations got screwed up, it’s generally a bad idea to have freelancers running around a war zone pretending to be James Bond,” one American government official said. But it is still murky whether Mr. Furlong had approval from top commanders or whether he might have been running a rogue operation.
This account of his activities is based on interviews with American military and intelligence officials and businessmen in the region. They insisted on anonymity in discussing a delicate case that is under investigation.
Col. Kathleen Cook, a spokeswoman for United States Strategic Command, which oversees Mr. Furlong’s work, declined to make him available for an interview. Military officials said Mr. Furlong, a retired Army officer, is now a senior civilian employee in the military, a full-time Defense Department employee based at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Network of Informants
Mr. Furlong has extensive experience in “psychological operations” — the military term for the use of information in warfare — and he plied his trade in a number of places, including Iraq and the Balkans. It is unclear exactly when Mr. Furlong’s operations began. But officials said they seemed to accelerate in the summer of 2009, and by the time they ended, he and his colleagues had established a network of informants in Afghanistan and Pakistan whose job it was to help locate people believed to be insurgents.
Government officials said they believed that Mr. Furlong might have channeled money away from a program intended to provide American commanders with information about Afghanistan’s social and tribal landscape, and toward secret efforts to hunt militants on both sides of the country’s porous border with Pakistan.
Some officials said it was unclear whether these operations actually resulted in the deaths of militants, though others involved in the operation said that they did.
Military officials said that Mr. Furlong would often boast about his network of informants in Afghanistan and Pakistan to senior military officers, and in one instance said a group of suspected militants carrying rockets by mule over the border had been singled out and killed as a result of his efforts.
In addition, at least one government contractor who worked with Mr. Furlong in Afghanistan last year maintains that he saw evidence that the information was used for attacking militants.