WASHINGTON: Warnings were ignored, security was lax and good judgment was lacking, leading to one of the worst tragedies in CIA history, when a double-agent suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees in Afghanistan last December.
That’s the view from the CIA director himself, speaking to reporters Tuesday, after a six-month internal review of the attack.
Yet Leon Panetta said no one will be disciplined or fired. He blamed the bombing on what he called "systemic failures," which meant Jordanian intelligence warnings about the bomber weren’t shared and sufficient security measures weren’t taken.
The CIA review, as well as a second independent study by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired CIA analyst Charles Allen, both concluded that the combined agency failures allowed the Al-Qaeda double agent, Humam Al-Balawi, to enter the CIA base at Khost.
Al-Balawi managed to kill five CIA employees, including the base chief, and two CIA security contractors, as well as the Jordanian intelligence officer and Afghan driver who had brought him there. Six other officers were wounded.
Instead of censuring any one person, Panetta said he was implementing a series of changes, including tightening security procedures, setting up a war advisory board to better train agents in combat zones and creating an analytic team to better spot double agents.
Panetta’s decision showed his reluctance to lay blame when many of those who made the mistakes were killed or grievously injured by the attacks. He would only say that the desire to capture a top Al-Qaeda target "clouded some of the judgments that were made," adding, "If anything, all of us bear some responsibility."
The officers’ assignment that day was to meet and train a new foreign agent, al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who claimed to be able to reach Al-Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman Al-Zawahri. The mission was so important that even President Barack Obama had been briefed on it.
Al-Balawi was being brought to the CIA’s base to determine whether he was as close as he claimed to Al-Zawahri, Panetta said. At the base, intelligence officials planned to give Al-Balawi training in "tools of tradecraft" and how to communicate al-Zawahiri’s location back to his handlers.
Panetta said Al-Balawi’s "handler," a Jordanian intelligence officer trusted by the Americans, had vouched for him, and that Al-Balawi already had proven to the Americans that he had solid connections to Al-Qaeda.
Intelligence officials said Al-Balawi had appeared to prove himself by describing Al-Qaeda practices known only to the agency and by verifying some high-value militant targets that had been killed in Predator drone strikes.
But roughly a month before the bombing, officials at the Jordanian intelligence service in Amman raised concerns with an American CIA officer there about Al-Balawi’s loyalties as an operative, Panetta said.
Their suspicions arose after Al-Balawi made repeated entreaties to the CIA officers in Afghanistan to visit him in the insurgent stronghold of Miram Shah in Pakistan’s North Waziristan province — a place too dangerous for CIA officers to operate.
The Jordanians felt Al-Balawi was trying to lure the Americans into an ambush. But those suspicions were dismissed by the American intelligence officer in Jordan as bureaucratic maneuvering inside the Jordanian intelligence agency, and the warnings were not passed on to Kabul, Khost or Washington.
The Jordanian intelligence officer’s concerns about Al-Balawi normally would be a counterintelligence "red flag," said a person familiar with the report, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Allen, a former CIA officer who served for decades with the agency and helped lead the independent study, said warning signs about Al-Balawi were missed both in the field and at headquarters. "There were counterintelligence deficiencies," he said.
Allen said the agency had also lost a lot of seasoned officers over the years, which had contributed to the failures. He said the ramping up of operations after the 9/11 attacks had put a lot of young officers in the field.
Panetta said the officers on the base were anxious to see Al-Balawi, having waited about 10 days for him to arrive. His Jordanian intelligence handler had recommended that the CIA officers all come out to greet Al-Balawi in deference to his high value to the agency, so more than a dozen intelligence officers were waiting outside the building.
Panetta said Al-Balawi wasn’t searched because he was a trusted source.
The car carrying Al-Balawi entered the inner compound, with the suicide bomber sitting in the back seat. Security officers approached to search him as he prepared to get out. But instead, the Jordanian slid to the opposite side of the seat and got out on the other side of the car — away from the security officers. He started speaking in Arabic and reaching under the robe of the traditional clothing he wore. That’s when security guards pulled their guns, but they were too late. Al-Balawi detonated the bomb.
His last-minute move to the other side of the car probably saved some lives, the director said, because the car shielded most of the CIA employees on the other side. Of those who survived, many had severe leg injuries, because the blast traveled underneath the car.