Thursday, January 07, 2010

That Other Security Breach

According to National Security Advisor James Jones, Americans will feel a "certain sense of shock" when they read a report on the missed clues that allowed underwear bomber Farouk Abdulmutallab to board that Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.

As he told USA Today:

President Obama "is legitimately and correctly alarmed that things that were available, bits of information that were available, patterns of behavior that were available, were not acted on," Jones said in an interview Wednesday.

"That's two strikes," Obama's top White House aide on defense and foreign policy issues said, referring to the foiled bombing of the Detroit-bound airliner and the shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, in November. In that case, too, officials failed to act when red flags were raised about an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Hasan. He has been charged with killing 13 people.

Jones said Obama "certainly doesn't want that third strike, and neither does anybody else."

President Obama will speak on the report later today, outlining some of the corrective measures being devised to deter future attacks.

But Mr. Obama has been almost silent on that second, shocking security breach that occurred just days after the attempted airliner bombing. We refer to the suicide attack that took the lives of seven CIA operatives at their base in Afghanistan. A Kuwaiti-born doctor, being cultivated as a source on the Taliban and Al Qaida, blew himself up after being escorted into the compound, killing the CIA employees and his handler, a Jordanian intelligence officer.

It was the single deadliest day for the agency since a truck bomber targeted the U.S. Embassy in Beirut 26 years ago. Six CIA employees, assigned to the Beirut station, died in that attack.

According to various media accounts, the bomber responsible for the 30 December attack, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was recruited by Jordanian intelligence for the purpose of penetrating Al Qaida and Taliban cells in Afghanistan. One CIA official told ABC's Brian Ross that al-Balawi was the "golden goose...the best hope in years" for obtaining actionable intelligence on senior Al Qaida terrorists, including the group's #2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Instead, al-Balawi was a double agent, part of a sophisticated terror plot to damage U.S. intelligence operations in Afghanistan. The degree to which he succeeded cannot be overstated.

Consider, for example, the number (and responsibilities) of the CIA operatives who attended the meeting. Seven of the agency's thirteen employees who were present died in the blast, including a female officer in charge of Operating Base Chapman, located near the Afghan-Pakistan border. Others killed by the bomber were described as some of the CIA's most experienced counter-terrorism operators. Their skills and expertise will not be easily replaced.

There's also the matter of other agents al-Balawi might have contacted. Sources claim the terrorist had visited Chapman before, suggesting he might have been in touch with other CIA employees, both at that facility and in the field. It's a safe bet that al-Balawi passed along names and descriptions of all Americans he met; we can only guess how many intelligence agents--working undercover "outside the wire" have been pulled from Afghanistan, for fears they will be killed by the terrorists. The same holds true for Afghans working with the Americans who handled the double agent.

Al-Balawi's exposure as a double agent will also force a revision of recent agency reporting from the region. As a "golden goose," there is little doubt that information he provided found its way into various CIA spot reports and longer analytic pieces. Now, those assessments will have to be scrubbed (or even pulled), since much of Al-Balawi's data is now suspect, to say the least.

As the reader of any spy novel knows, there are certain protocols for dealing with informants who might be double agents. Sadly, few of those were apparently followed by CIA operatives at Operating Base Chapman. According to some accounts, he was never searched when he entered the compound. Retired operatives also expressed surprise at the number of individuals who attended the meeting. Former CIA agent Robert Baer told ABC that in the past, only one or two officers who have participated in the session, along with the Jordanian escort.

But everyone believed that al-Balawi was the genuine article, a jihadist who had been successfully "turned" by the Jordanians and was about to deliver the goods on Al Qaida leaders. But the Turkish-educated physician--a known and prolific contributor on terrorist forums--delivered the unexpected, a devastating attack with far-reaching consequences for front-line HUMINT operations in what we used to call "The War on Terror."

It would be easy to blame leadership at Chapman for the debacle--and certainly, they bear some of the blame. But we also wonder how much pressure Langley placed on operatives in the field, hoping to find the "holy grail" that would lead us to Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden. Not long ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it "had been years" since the intelligence community had good information on the whereabouts of senior Al Qaida leaders. With the al-Balawi operation, the CIA was trying desperately to close that gap, and willing to circumvent normal security procedures to gain the information.

It's another reminder of how our HUMINT capabilities have suffered--and continue to suffer--under successive U.S. administrations. When President Obama talks about fixing intelligence problems, he needs to look beyond the failures that failed to detect the Nigerian bombing suspect before he boarded that Northwest flight. In many respects, the attack at Operating Base Chapman is even more serious than Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed plot. We need to address the issues that led to that disaster--and quickly.
ADDENDUM: In the aftermath of the deadly bombing, many have lamented the CIA's "out-sourcing" of intel operations in the Middle East. As the theory goes, it's hard for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed American to join Al Qaida (although Adam Gadahn and John Walker Lindh might disagree).

Still, there are certain steps the U.S. can take to ensure the reliability (and affiliation) of source cultivated by other intelligence services. After al-Balawi was identified as the bomber, western reporters managed to track down his wife in Turkey, where he attended medical school. In at least one interview, Al-Balawi's wife affirmed his devotion to jihad and his hatred for America. If Agence France Presse can obtain that type of information, why can't the CIA?


Aerospook said...

Very little of the details that have been released indicate standard tradecraft....Does anyone know how many of the "CIA operatives" were contractors?

Of course, as has been mentioned, and as we have seen in the speech today, the current administration has dialed down the official concern, so their lives might have been lost through weak intel due to administration pressure.

Peaceful Crusader said...

Peaceful Crusader said...

I thought that article might be helpful in understanding Taqiyya

Unknown said...

Hmmmmm lions and moles and smice... who needs tigers and bears?