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US Immigration and Customs Enforcement pays a private security firm run by former top CIA interrogator Barry McManus to train ICE agents in intelligence and “counterterrorism.” TRNN’s Ben Norton speaks with investigative journalist Ken Klippenstein.

Story Transcript

BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News, I’m Ben Norton. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is notorious for its abuse of immigrants. ICE has also been further empowered under the Trump administration to carry out even more abuses. We’ve heard of horror stories in the past year of ICE pulling undocumented immigrants out of hospitals, detaining parents when they drop their kids off at school and even tearing apart families who have lived here for decades. Also, there are reports that thousands of immigrants detained by ICE have been forced into labor, while at the same time, a new report reveals that ICE actually pays a private security firm run by a former top CIA interrogator to train ICE agents in intelligence and so-called counterterrorism.

The CIA, it goes without saying, is also notorious for its use of torture, as the massive six-thousand-page Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture revealed. Well, joining us to discuss this is the reporter who revealed this. We’re joined by Ken Klippenstein, who is an investigative reporter who contributes to The Young Turks and The Daily Beast. His most recent story is in The Young Turks and it’s titled, Veteran CIA Interrogator Training ICE Officers. Thanks for joining us.

KEN KLIPPENSTEIN: Hey Ben, thanks for having me.

BEN NORTON: So, can you talk a bit about the story? It’s pretty shocking. I mean, we’ve seen a slew of abuses that ICE has carried out in the past decade since it was created after 9/11. But this is even more shocking, that ICE is working with a former CIA interrogator.

KEN KLIPPENSTEIN: Yeah, I was pretty shocked myself. I mean, I’ve been covering national security stuff for a while and I feel like I have lost a lot of the capacity to be surprised, but this is certainly one story that has done that to me. And the reason for that was- so, not just as this top CIA interrogator, he was the head of the polygraphing division at the CIA for over ten years I think, and he was at the agencies for decades. Not just that, he was the personal bodyguard for a former CIA director. So, this is not some low-level functionary in the agency by any means. This person runs the firm that was contracted to train ICE in “counterterror intelligence collection.”.

And so, the question that comes to my mind is, why does ICE, you know, supposed to handle immigration stuff, why are they doing counterterror? So, I interviewed, as you can see in a story, I interviewed a former ICE agent, who I should point out is not some left-wing person by any means, and he told me that this is extraordinarily unusual. If you look at the contract, it’s not just for ICE, it’s for what’s called Enforcement and Removal officers. And their job, according to this ICE agent, is literally just to grab somebody, put him in detention and then later the courts handle it. They’re not supposed to handle investigations. They’re not supposed interrogate people. So, this ICE agent was really surprised, as was I of course, that there had this really top flight former CIA officer in a firm that supposedly has more CIA interrogators than any other firm if you believe the advertising of the company.

Why are they training these low-level ERO officers, who are essentially kind of like cops? You know, they’re just not supposed to conduct these sorts of things. And according to the ICE agent I spoke with, ICE doesn’t even have the authority to conduct counterterror investigations. That’s supposed to be run through the FBI, specifically the Joint Terror Task Force. So, for all of those reasons, this raised a number of red flags to me. And one more thing I should point out is that the contract was awarded to them, a no bid contract. Literally, I think it was three days after the Trump administration internally authorized their policy of separating families. So, it’s a number of concerning, I think, developments.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, let’s talk more about that. What’s interesting is that we’ve seen this kind of confluence in the post 9/11 era in which ICE was created. ICE falls under the jurisdiction of the DHS Department, Homeland Security, which was created by the George W. Bush administration after 9/11. And what’s interesting is that ICE- the perception is that ICE is primarily targeting immigrants from South and Central America, largely Latino immigrants, and is terrorizing immigrants here in the United States. And what’s also interesting is at the same time, that the so-called war on terror, the impression is that this is really a war on extremist Islamist groups.

There are many other terrorist groups, including right-wing white supremacist terrorist groups that are not targeted by the War on Terror. But what’s interesting is with this kind of rhetoric, with former CIA agents, former top CIA interrogators training ICE officials in counterterrorism, there is this kind of attempt to combine both the War on Terror with this war on immigrants from Central and South America. I’m wondering if you could just speak to how this story that you revealed reflects this.

KEN KLIPPENSTEIN: Well, the man that runs the company that was contracted to train these ICE agents in intelligence collection, he himself has extensive counterterror experience. Of course, he’s CIA, so the details about that are sort of vague. But what you can see is that he’s had experience all over the world including the Middle East. And my question is, why do we need to bring that home? Why do we need to bring that to the United States? I mean it’s a completely separate question if- what sort of tactics we should be adopting overseas. But I talked to this ICE agent, he says there’s no counter- there’s essentially no counterterror threat south of the border. He doesn’t see why they need to be handling this. We have other agencies that deal with counterterror things and frankly have much better training.

So, it’s troubling for a number of those reasons. And another thing I should point out is if they want to train- let’s assume that it’s okay to train Enforcement Removal in investigations and intelligence collection. Why not have a police department do it? Why not have just an ordinary law enforcement agency do it? Why pursue this counterterror attack? I’m sure you’re familiar with the expression, “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” You know, that was something former counterintelligence people told me. If we’re training them in these methods, are they going to start seeing terror where perhaps there isn’t any?

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and then the story that you revealed is about Barry McManus, this is the former CIA interrogator. He was in the agency for twenty years, he retired in 2003. And then in 2006, you report he created the firm Global Traveler Security. And what’s interesting about this story is it also I think reflects this new- it’s certainly not new, but this move toward, by the government, toward privatization, towards outsourcing and contract work.

In your reporting, you frequently report on these no-bid contracts that the government signs with different private firms, and many of these firms are run by former government officials. So, there’s a kind of revolving door where former government officials, they spend decades building up all of these sources inside the government and then they leave, and they profit off of that and they make way more money in the private sector than they did in the public sector. Really quickly here, I’m wondering if you could just comment on how this story and some of your other reports kind of reflect this corporate/public revolving door.

KEN KLIPPENSTEIN: Well, let me tell you- I’ll tell you a story. I was talking to a former Blackwater officer, or you know private security contractor for Blackwater. And what he told- I said, “So why are they privatizing everything? The government can do much more efficiently at lower cost, when you run it in-house there’s better communication, etc, etc.” He told me, he says, “Well if you’re a private company, how much transparency do you think there is?” So, I kind of think about it and think, well, as a reporter it’s very hard to find anything out about private institutions. You can’t file a Freedom of Information Act request. They’re not subject to a lot of the same presumption of openness that government, whatever you may think of government, in fact is.

And he told me that’s exactly why. They want to keep it off the books. There’s far less transparency, there’s less you can see. I can only speculate as to why they picked this particular training organization, but whatever the case may be, that’s certainly one aspect of it, is there’s very little I can find out other than just talking to sources, what this company is up to. And indeed, when I spoke to McManus, he sort of demurred on a number of questions I had about what the company does. He said that you can’t divulge this kind of thing. So, it was difficult to get visibility into what sorts of things they’re engaged in. And I wonder if that’s the point.

BEN NORTON: Well, we’ll have to end out conversation there. We were joined by Ken Klippenstein, who is an investigative journalist and he is a contributing reporter to The Young Turks and The Daily Beast. We were discussing his recent report at The Young Turks titled, Veteran CIA Interrogator Training ICE Officers. Thanks for joining us, Ken.

KEN KLIPPENSTEIN: Hey, thanks so much Ben.

BEN NORTON: For The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.

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Ken Klippenstein is an investigative reporter and contributor to The Daily Beast. He is based in Madison, Wisconsin.