Center for Strategic Communication

Blackwater guards at the Republican Palace in Iraq, undated photo. The reincarnated security firm, now called Academi, just received a contract to train the Defense Department’s intelligence operatives in self-defense. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Now that the private security company formerly known as Blackwater is under new ownership, it’s entering into a new partnership with the Defense Department. The U.S. military’s intelligence service is hiring the firm, along with five others, to train its operatives to defend themselves as they collect information in dangerous places — something particularly salient as the Mideast continues to light up with anti-American fervor.

The Defense Intelligence Agency announced on Thursday evening it would award six private security companies a share of a $20 million contract to provide “individual protective measures training courses” for its operatives. Among them is Academi, the 3.0 version of Blackwater, now under new ownership and management. It appears to be the first Blackwater/Academi contract with the military since a Blackwater “shell company” called Paravant held one to train Afghan policemen — and used it to steal their guns for personal use, while posing as South Park characters to disguise their tracks.

And this isn’t just any old training contract. It’s part of an effort to prepare the Defense Intelligence Agency’s information gatherers for work in the rugged, remote, and unpleasant parts of the world. “The training is designed for personnel before they leave on overseas deployments,” reads a description of the contract, “to provide them with a foundation of hard and soft skills relevant to living and working in hostile and austere environments.” Nor is it a one-off: the training contract has a five-year life span.

The announcement comes at a time when Washington is alarmed by the ability of a militant group to launch a deadly assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As Danger Room has reported, the U.S. has flown surveillance drones over Libya ever since last year’s war, but it remains unclear if the attackers evaded the U.S.’ electronic spy tools by communicating in person.

Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the new director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, appears to be concerned by that intelligence vulnerability. Flynn led a transformation in the Joint Special Operations Command that got its troops thinking of themselves as intelligence collectors and the command as an organization that rapidly synthesizes and acts on acquired information. That cultural shift is credited as a key factor behind the command’s effectiveness.

Now Flynn leads the intelligence service entrusted with the Defense Department’s entire human intelligence network. One of his first messages to his workforce as Defense Intelligence Agency director emphasized bolstering that network as a top priority: “We must strengthen our human intelligence collection against strategic defense targets growing more difficult to penetrate.” The agency’s strategic plan promises: “DIA’s expeditionary charter to deploy its workforce to conflict zones, areas of emerging threats, combatant commands, U.S. embassies, and our allies’ military headquarters, to name a few, will be vigorously exercised over the next five years and likely beyond.”

Training intelligence collectors to live in uncomfortable, rugged places looks like a step toward that goal — and the goal of preventing future Benghazis.

It’s unclear if this is the first U.S. military contract Academi holds since the firm came under its new ownership and attempted to draw a bright line under its former incarnation as Blackwater and Xe Services. An Academi spokesman declined to comment for this article until the contract is finalized. But if it’s not the first new contract of the Academi era, it’s among the first — and it represents another chance for the firm to prove that its days of gun running, drug abuse and civilian casualties are in the past.