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Saturday, September 4, 2010

What Went Wrong In Khost

“Let the pulpit resound with the doctrine and sentiments of religious liberty. Let us hear of the dignity of man’s nature, and the noble rank he holds among the works of God.” —John Adams

I have compiled this Blog post from fifteen different reports on the Khost bombing. These reports, along with my knowledge gained from working, as a contractor and having a security clearance, with an intelligence agency formed the basis for the post. The one indelible thing I learned from working with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency was that like all government agencies they are packed with bureaucrats worried more about their careers and budgets than the mission.

On December 30, 2009 Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, an al-Qaeda operative who had supposedly turned double agent walked into a CIA forward base in Afghanistan and exploded a bomb he was carrying beneath his garments. The fireball from the explosion not only killed al-Balawi but it killed seven CIA operatives and wounded six others.

The Jordanians claim that in December,2010 al-Balawi requested an urgent meeting with the CIA and his Jordanian handler, Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a relation of the royal Jordanian family. To whet their appetite, al-Balawi dangled a tantalizing piece of information: he claimed to have "some information" on the whereabouts of al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second in command. To any CIA operative this would have been a great catch and a feather in their cap.

The New York Times reported that al-Balawi's offer of information on al-Zawahiri was deemed important enough for the local CIA station to alert top officials at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and in the White House. Al-Balawi was taken seriously, and trusted enough to warrant a trip to Khost by the CIA's second-in-command in Afghanistan, an unidentified divorced mother of three, to attend the spy's debriefing at a U.S. base. But al-Balawi, who was allowed onto Forward Operating Base Chapman without a body search, was wearing a suicide belt and blew himself up as soon as he encountered his CIA and Jordanian spymasters.

Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi was a Jordanian of Palestinian descent. He went to medical school in Turkey and married a Turkish woman. He blogged on a jihadist site and let it be known that he'd been radicalized by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was his blog, in fact, that attracted the attention of Jordanian intelligence in 2008.

Jordanian intelligence had seen its share of homegrown Islamic militants and believed they knew exactly what to do with Balawi. Deep under its headquarters in Amman is a block of interrogation cells where no one comes out the same as he went in. As Balawi was led into that block to face his interrogator, he surely shuddered when he read the black banner over the door:" justice has come."

It's unknown how long it took Jordanian intelligence to break Balawi, force him to renounce his radical beliefs, and agree to become a mole. Nor is it clear why the Jordanians thought Balawi would have been so easily accepted into Al Qaeda's ranks. Were his blog posts really enough to win their trust? The salient point is that the Jordanians had been under intense American pressure to infiltrate Al Qaeda, and Balawi was the best they could do.

The Khost death toll is second only to the record for the number of CIA staffers killed in a single day. On April 18 1983, eight members of the Agency were killed when the US Embassy in Beirut was blown up by a Hezbollah suicide bomb.

But al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor, was the CIA's worst ever security breach. In an era when grandmothers are routinely screened at airports, al-Balawi was whisked into Forward Operating Base (FOB) Chapman, the CIA headquarters for the drone war against al-Qaeda, without so much as a pat-down. He was then ushered into a meeting with 13 CIA operatives and his Jordanian handler. This was just very bad tradecraft and demonstrates what happens when Directorate of Intelligence (D.I.) analysts begin doing the job of Directorate of Operations (D.O.) shooter. It’s like Jack Ryan doing the job of John Clark and Ding Chavez in the Tom Clancy novels.

Khost is just across the border from
North Waziristan, the lawless Pakistani tribal area from where al-Qaeda and the Taliban routinely launch attacks on U.S. and NATO positions in Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but U.S. authorities have released few details. "We mourn the loss of life in this attack," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said. Hank Crumpton, who headed the CIA's counterterror operations in Afghanistan after 9/11: "This horrible attack underscores the risk that CIA officers, men and women, undertake every day in Afghanistan and around the world. They are America's most important resource in this war, and this is a tragic blow."

This attack is a prime example of how the CIA has become politicized since the 1990s. Senior CIA officers, like Robert Baer, have spoken and written about this issue since he retired from the Agency. Writing in the April 2009 issue of
GQ magazine, Baer depicts a spy agency where "the operatives' sun started to set" in the 1990s and never recovered. Baer's article is well worth reading.

Baer writes, “A red station wagon had been dispatched to pick up Balawi at the Pakistan border ten miles away, the base's Afghan driver at the wheel. At about 4:30 p.m., the car pulled up in front of the interrogation center. When Balawi stepped out, he kept one hand in his pocket. According to press accounts, this caught the attention of a security contractor from Xe Services (formerly Blackwater), who moved to search Balawi. But a former CIA officer with knowledge of the agency's internal investigation of the incident told me it was the mole's handler in the Jordanian intelligence service—the man who'd recruited Balawi in the first place—who first suspected something was wrong. What tipped him off? Balawi started to pray: There is no god but God.”

Baer continues, “The base chief was a covert employee of the CIA; her identity is protected by law. I'll call her Kathy. She was 45 years old and a divorced mother of three. She'd spent the vast majority of her career at a desk in Northern Virginia, where she studied Al Qaeda for more than a decade. Michael Scheuer, her first boss in Alec Station, the CIA unit that tracked bin Laden, told me she had attended the operative's basic training course at the Farm, the agency's training facility, and that he considered her a good, smart officer. Another officer who knew her told me that despite her training at the Farm, she was always slotted to be a reports officer, someone who edits reports coming in from the field. She was never intended to meet and debrief informants.”
This is an update as of January 14, 2013. The actual name of the CIA chief at Camp Chapman, shown here as “Kathy” is Jennifer Matthews who was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Kathy knew that there was a time when only seasoned field operatives were put in charge of places like Khost. Not only would an operative need to have distinguished himself at the Farm; he would've run informants in the field for five years or more before earning such a post. He probably would have done at least one previous tour in a war zone, too. And he would have known the local language, in this case Pashto. Kathy skipped all of this. Imagine a Marine going straight from Parris Island to taking command of a combat battalion in the middle of a war.”

“In the late '90s, when Kathy was first put on the bin Laden account, it was the Siberia of the CIA, located in a bleak office building in Tysons Corner, Virginia. If you needed someone important to pay attention to you, you had to drive down Route 123 to the main building in Langley. And even then you'd be lucky to get fifteen minutes of anyone's time.”

“Truth is that until September 11, not everyone in the agency was all that worried about bin Laden. The spoiled son of a Saudi construction magnate, he hadn't done any real fighting in the Afghan war. Yes, he'd been behind a truck bombing in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998. But neither truck got inside the building, and American casualties were relatively light. Was this the best bin Laden could do? To the old guard at the CIA, he looked like a wannabe, not in the same league as Hezbollah.”

“That all changed on September 11, of course, when every CIA station and base in the world turned their attention to "penetrating" Al Qaeda—recruiting a mole next to Osama bin Laden. In the span of a few years, the CIA's counterterrorism center went from a couple of hundred officers to 4,000. If you wanted to rise in the CIA, you needed to prove you were doing your part to get bin Laden.”

Baer concludes, “As an Al Qaeda expert, Kathy did more than her part. But Khost was her first field command, her first real chance to run informants. She lived in a trailer, ate in a common mess, and experienced the isolation of life behind blast walls and razor wire, surrounded by the dun countryside of eastern Afghanistan. Like every other American serving in this part of the world, trapped on base for fear of the Taliban, she must have felt like a prisoner. But from what I've be able to glean about her, this hardship would've made her all the more determined to show her bosses that she could do the job.”

So it was that the spy agency sent an analyst to do an operative's work in Khost, in desolate southeast Afghanistan, last year. Traditionally, the CIA's station chiefs, or top agency officer in a country, and its base chiefs, deployed in outlying offices, were veteran case officers, or seasoned spy handlers.

But, under a series of CIA directors starting in the mid-1990s, that began to change. Career intelligence analysts, like John O. Brennan, now President Obama's deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, who was station chief in Saudi Arabia from 1996 to 1999, were increasingly deployed to field positions even though they had no real experience as case officers. They were analysts, not shooters.

Given the size of the CIA, the loss it suffered when Balawi, assumed to have been an asset penetrating al-Qaeda, detonated an explosives belt at a gathering of agency personnel was the equivalent of the Army losing a battalion. It was a major setback for the CIA after eight years at war, not to mention the fact that it coincided with a moment when the Agency is under political attack in this country on issues ranging from torture to intelligence failings prior to the Christmas Day airline-bombing plot. But the Khost attack is also evidence of the intelligence nightmare we face in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which controls much of the territory, are able to blind the U.S. mission on the ground by continuing to run suicide bombers at us.

But there was also a quieter and potentially more profound reaction: Given the skill of this operation, how trustworthy are the other sources the CIA has been using to help target its drone attacks against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan? The standard claim has been that the CIA's human intelligence against al-Qaeda — and other threats — has improved dramatically in recent years. Spies are, by nature, paranoid, and there will be suspicion now that any new and even some trusted sources are "dangles" — that is, double agents working for al-Qaeda. This could cripple future operations. People tend to get very cautious in a hurry when this sort of thing happens. Remember; it was
James Angleton, loosely portrayed in the Matt Damon film, The Good Shepherd,  who tore the CIA apart looking for Soviet moles

According to
Margaret Henoch, a CIA operations supervisor who’s persona is reminiscent of the May Pat Foley character in the Clancy novels, the Directorate of Intelligence is staffed with academic types and it resembles more of a university than an intelligence agency. Henoch was involved in the vetting of “Curveball” in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. She always thought Curveball was not a creditable source and the agency did not do a proper job of vetting him or his claims that Saddam Hussein possessed mobile biological weapons vans. That and other phony intelligence vetted by top CIA officials laid the foundation for the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq. This was a fatal mistake that haunted the Bush administration for eight years and the same philosophies will haunt Obama until the CIA is revamped.

Henoch states; “I don't think they fixed the who-does-the-vetting of potential spies. I think there are too many people who don't understand the basics of operational issues doing analytic work. I have a dear friend who was in the D.I. [directorate of intelligence] who says that a lot of the people over there don't understand they're in an intelligence agency instead of at a university."

You can hear Margaret Henoch’s comments as a caller to the
Kojo Nnamdi Show a Washington D.C. talk show host on WAMU-FM radio. I don’t think much of Kojo, but Henoch’s comments are worth a listen just click here.

In an interview with
The Washington Post, CIA Director Leon Panetta said the attack was prompted by the administration's pursuit of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "You can't just conduct the kind of aggressive operations we are conducting against the enemy and not expect that they are not going to try to retaliate," he said.

“A seasoned operative would have punched holes in the plan to bring Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi who persuaded the CIA he could penetrate the top circles of al-Qaeda – to the agency's base in Khost, counters Charles Faddis, a career operative who retired in 2008.

As it turned out, Balawi had been dispatched by al-Qaeda in Pakistan. When he was picked up by an agency security team, he stepped into the car wearing a suicide vest of explosives. They failed to pat him down -- another inexplicable lapse of tradecraft.

"It's not like we haven't picked up bad guys in bad parts of town before," said Faddis. “A case officer would have never permitted such lapses. You have security guys to bring the guy in. They’re shooters, and God bless ‘em, they know how to shoot, but it’s the tradecraft that keeps you alive. And for that you need an experienced case officer in charge. “A case officer is a god," Faddis added. "If he sniffs the air and says something doesn’t feel right and he calls the operation off, that’s it, it’s off. In this case, there wasn’t a serious case officer in charge."

Bob Baer, whose exploits from his book “
See No Evil” were dramatized in the George Clooney movie “Syriana” states;"The most inexplicable error was to have met Balawi by committee Informants should always be met one-on-one. Always." In no way am I recommending the film, it’s merely an item of reference I point to. Like many Hollywood films portraying our intelligence agencies it is greatly flawed and in presents an obviously liberal, social progressive point of view of the world. It totally ignores the fact that Islamists are the ones promoting global terror as part of their jihad to reestablish a Muslim caliphate.

Instead, desperate for a chance to get close to Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, agency officials from Khost up through Kabul to CIA headquarters in Langley -- at least a half dozen operations officials, at minimum -- failed to bullet-proof a pick-up plan that to veterans was as absurd then as it looks now.

And that's not counting the original sin of accepting Balawi as a real spy in the first place. The longtime anti-American doctor was served up by the Jordanian intelligence service, which claimed they had flipped him after a short stay in their custody. The CIA bit – hard. Instead of eyeing Balawi like a Siamese cat might, toying with its prize, it pounced on him like a happy golden retriever.

The painful fact is that the Taliban's growing influence in the countryside has severely narrowed the CIA's field of operations. And although no one has said as much, the purpose of al-Qaeda's attack on the CIA in Khost was to force it to retreat. The agency has vowed to fight on all the harder, and it will do so. But the attack in Khost will force the CIA to draw back farther and farther behind the wire in order to protect its officers. The CIA is a civilian organization that's not built to sustain casualties like this, no matter how willing its employees are to serve in dangerous places like Afghanistan. And replacing the expertise of some of those lost in the bombing will take many years.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military may have few other options. On Jan. 4, 2010  Major General Michael T. Flynn, the country's top U.S. intelligence officer, issued a grim assessment of the U.S.-led coalition forces' ability to gather actionable data on its elusive enemy. Analysts, according to the report, are "starved for information from the field," to the point that their jobs feel more like "fortune-telling than serious detective work." Despite misgivings after al-Balawi's lethal betrayal, the CIA's attempts — with Jordan's help — to recruit another spy to infiltrate al-Qaeda may still be their best bet. This time they better hone their tradecraft.

Flynn’s report goes on to state; "Eight years into the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy. U.S. intelligence is clueless" and ignorant. Military intelligence has been ignorant about the local power structures in combat areas, imperiling U.S. troops on the ground. And it is likely that the attack on FOB Chapman will spill over into the efforts to train the Afghan army and police — which was always an iffy proposition and now faces a massive security question: How many of these trainees are actually reporting to Mullah Omar and bin Laden? After eight years in Afghanistan, is it possible that we're still fighting blind.”

One of the remedies recommended by Flynn was for operatives to spend more time outside the wire, but the painful truth is that anyone who ventures outside the wire, from the Provincial Reconstruction Teams to routine patrols, is a potential target. It's impossible to profile suicide bombers, and there is no way to avoid them except by holing up on bases.

The question the Obama Administration should be asking itself is this: If the enemy in Afghanistan is able to expand its reach and drive us into crusader-like castles, force us to travel by helicopter and resupply the military with C-17s, is there any chance of turning this around?

You can read more about “Curveball” and the run up to the ear in Iraq by
clicking here.

For more opinion on the war in Afghanistan click here.

This is an update on the Khost bombing: September 6, 2010

Pedaling for Patriots

Rob and Kim Richer are pedaling across the county from Jacksonville, Florida to San Diego California to raise money for the families of the CIA officers killed in the Khost Bombing. There are now unlabeled stars on the wall of heroes at CIA headquarters I Langley, Virginia. The first officer killed in Afghanistan was Johnnie Michael Spann. You can read more from Rob Richter by clicking here.

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