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.
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