A senior American defence official is under investigation after boasting to colleagues that he had operated a maverick network of private security contractors to gather intelligence on al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. Michael Furlong allegedly told colleagues that his group of contractors in Pakistan and Afghanistan, many of them special forces soldiers, were my Jason Bournes a reference to the fictional CIA assassin in the novels of Robert Ludlum. Mr Furlong, a highly decorated member of US Strategic Command, was seconded to US Central Command to contribute to information operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The apparent covert use of public funds to provide intelligence for lethal-force missions has exposed the thin line between legitimate military operations and freelance activities which go on undercover without any apparent official authorisation or recognition. It is alleged that Mr Furlong hired a number of US companies, including the Florida-based International Media Ventures, run by Richard Pack, a former special forces commander, and American International Security Corporation in Boston, headed by Mike Taylor, an ex-Green Beret. Instead of using the companies to provide the US military with a better understanding of the regional and tribal variations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is claimed that Mr Furlong instructed them to gather intelligence on militants who were subsequently targeted by the US military. According to The New York Times, the head of the CIA station in Kabul sent a memo to the Pentagon last autumn complaining of Mr Furlongs activities. Private security companies, albeit staffed by ex-CIA and former special forces personnel, are seen as dangerous rivals to the legitimate agents. In Iraq the exploits of the Blackwater security company exposed the extent to which power had been given to private contractors. (The Times)