WASHINGTON — Duane R. Clarridge parted company with the CIA more than two decades ago, but from poolside at his home near San Diego, he still runs a network of spies.
Over the past two years, he has fielded operatives in the mountains of Pakistan and the desert badlands of Afghanistan. Since the U.S. military cut off his funding in May, he has relied on like-minded private donors to pay his agents to continue gathering information about militant fighters, Taliban leaders and the secrets of Kabul's ruling class.
Hatching schemes that are something of a cross between a Graham Greene novel and Mad Magazine's "Spy vs. Spy," Clarridge has sought to discredit Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Kandahar power broker who has long been on the CIA payroll, and planned to set spies on his half brother, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, in hopes of collecting beard trimmings or other DNA samples that might prove Clarridge's suspicions that the Afghan leader was a heroin addict, associates say.
Clarridge, 78, who was indicted on charges of lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal and later pardoned, is described by those who have worked with him as driven by the conviction that Washington is bloated with bureaucrats and lawyers who impede American troops in fighting adversaries and that leaders are overly reliant on mercurial allies.
His dispatches — an amalgam of fact, rumor, analysis and uncorroborated reports — have been sent to military officials who, until last spring at least, found some credible enough to be used in planning strikes against militants in Afghanistan. They are also fed to conservative commentators, including Oliver L. North, a compatriot from the Iran-contra days and now a Fox News analyst, and Brad Thor, an author of military thrillers and a frequent guest of Glenn Beck.
It shows how the outsourcing of military and intelligence operations has spawned legally murky clandestine operations that can be at cross-purposes with America's foreign policy goals. Despite Clarridge's keen interest in undermining Afghanistan's ruling family, President Barack Obama's administration appears resigned to working with Hamid Karzai and his half brother, who is widely suspected of having ties to drug traffickers.
The private spying operation, which The New York Times disclosed last year, was tapped by a military desperate for information about its enemies and frustrated with the quality of intelligence from the CIA, an agency that colleagues say Clarridge now views largely with contempt.
The Pentagon official who arranged a contract for Clarridge in 2009 is under investigation for allegations of violating Defense Department rules in awarding that contract. Because of the continuing inquiry, most of the dozen current and former government officials, private contractors and associates of Clarridge who were interviewed for this article would speak only on the condition of anonymity.
Clarridge declined to be interviewed, but issued a statement that likened his operation, called the Eclipse Group, to the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA's World War II precursor.
"OSS was a success of the past," he wrote. "Eclipse may possibly be an effective model for the future, providing information to officers and officials of the United States government who have the sole responsibility of acting on it or not."
A staunch interventionist
From his days running secret wars for the CIA in Central America to his consulting work in the 1990s on a plan to insert Special Operations troops in Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, Clarridge has been an unflinching cheerleader for American intervention overseas.
Typical of his pugnacious style are his comments, provided in a 2008 interview for a documentary now on YouTube, defending many of the CIA's most notorious operations, including undermining the Chilean president Salvador Allende, before a coup ousted him 1973.
"Sometimes, unfortunately, things have to be changed in a rather ugly way," said Clarridge. "We'll intervene whenever we decide it's in our national security interests to intervene."
"Get used to it, world," he said. "We're not going to put up with nonsense."
He is also stirred by the belief that the CIA has failed to protect American troops in Afghanistan, and that the Obama administration has struck a Faustian bargain with Hamid Karzai, according to four current and former associates. They say Clarridge thinks that the Afghan president will end up cutting deals with Pakistan or Iran and selling out the United States, making American troops the pawns in the Great Game of power politics in the region.
Clarridge — known to virtually everyone by his childhood nickname, Dewey — was born into a staunchly Republican family in New Hampshire, attended Brown University and joined the spy agency during its freewheeling early years. He eventually became head of the agency's Latin America division in 1981 and helped found the CIA's Counterterrorism Center.
In postings in India, Turkey, Italy and elsewhere, Clarridge, using pseudonyms that included Dewey Marone and Dax Preston LeBaron, made a career of testing boundaries in the dark space of American foreign policy. In his 1997 memoir, he wrote about trying to engineer pro-American governments in Italy in the late 1970s (the former American ambassador to Rome, Richard N. Gardner, called him "shallow and devious"), and helping run the Reagan administration's covert wars against Marxist guerrillas in Central America during the 1980s.
He was indicted in 1991 on charges of lying to Congress about his role in the Iran-contra scandal; he had testified that he was unaware of arms shipments to Iran. But he was pardoned the next year by the first President George Bush.
Now, more than two decades after Clarridge was forced to resign from the intelligence agency, he tries to run his group of spies as a CIA in miniature. Working from his house in a San Diego suburb, he uses e-mail to stay in contact with his "agents" in Afghanistan and Pakistan, writing up intelligence summaries based on their reports, according to associates.
Intelligence of varying quality
It is difficult to assess the merits of Clarridge's secret intelligence dispatches; a review of some of the documents by The Times shows that some appear to be based on rumors from talk at village bazaars or rehashes of press reports.
Others, though, contain specific details about militant plans to attack American troops, and about Taliban leadership meetings in Pakistan. Clarridge gave the military an in-depth report about a militant group, the Haqqani Network, in August 2009, a document that officials said helped the military track Haqqani fighters. According to the Pentagon report, Clarridge told Marine commanders in Afghanistan in June 2010 that his group produced 500 intelligence dispatches before its contract was terminated.
When the military would not listen to him, Clarridge found other ways to peddle his information.
For instance, his private spies in April and May were reporting that Mullah Muhammad Omar, the reclusive cleric who leads the Afghan Taliban, had been captured by Pakistani officials and placed under house arrest. Associates said Clarridge believed that Pakistan's spy service was playing a game: keeping Mullah Omar confined but continuing to support the Afghan Taliban.
Both military and intelligence officials said the information could not be corroborated, but Clarridge used back channels to pass it on to senior Obama administration officials, including Dennis C. Blair, then the director of national intelligence.
And associates said that Clarridge, determined to make the information public, arranged for it to get to Thor, a square-jawed writer of thrillers, a blogger and a regular guest on Beck's program on Fox News.
Taking on Afghan leaders
Clarridge and his spy network also took sides in an internecine government battle over Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Khandahar Provincial Council.
For years, the American military has believed that public anger over government-linked corruption has helped swell the Taliban's ranks, and that Ahmed Wali Karzai plays a central role in that corruption. He has repeatedly denied any links to the Afghan drug trafficking.
According to three American military officials, in April 2009 Gen. David D. McKiernan, then the top American commander in Afghanistan, told subordinates that he wanted them to gather any evidence that might tie the president's half brother to the drug trade. "He put the word out that he wanted to 'burn' Ahmed Wali Karzai," said one of the military officials.
In early 2010, after McKiernan left Afghanistan and Clarridge was under contract to the military, the former spy helped produce a dossier for commanders detailing allegations about Karzai's drug connections, land grabs and even murders in southern Afghanistan. The document, provided to The Times, speculates that Karzai's ties to the CIA — which has paid him an undetermined amount of money since 2001 — may be the reason the agency "is the only member of the country team in Kabul not to advocate taking a more active stance against AWK."
Ultimately, though, the military could not amass enough hard proof to convince other American officials of Karzai's supposed crimes, and backed off efforts to remove him from power.
Clarridge, his associates say, continues to dream up other operations against the Afghan president and his inner circle. When he was an official spy, Clarridge recalled in his memoir, he bristled at the CIA's bureaucracy for thwarting his plans to do maximum harm to America's enemies. "It's not like I'm running my own private CIA," he wrote, "and can do what I want."