Monday, March 22, 2010

Ex-spies still agitated over CIA's Afghan losses

By Jeff Stein
March 22, 2010; 1:10 PM ET
The Washington Post

Nearly three months after an al-Qaeda double agent obliterated an important CIA team in Afghanistan, veteran spies remain agitated over the incident and the agency’s seeming inability to fix longtime operational flaws.

The latest eruption over the Dec. 30 incident that killed seven CIA officers and contractors in a powerful suicide fireball comes from Robert Baer, the former clandestine operations officer who has been pillorying his former employer in books, articles and television interviews since shortly the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But other agency veterans have been weighing in as well, and increasingly, on the record.

Writing in the April issue of GQ magazine, Baer depicts a spy agency where "the operatives' sun started to set" in the 1990s and never recovered.

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.

And Khost was the badlands. The base chief's lack of operational experience, lethally mixed with a lack of rigorous supervision from senior officials from CIA headquarters on down, got her killed, Baer and others think.

"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," writes Baer. (The Washington Post has not revealed her name at the request of the CIA.)

Baer adds:

"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."

Critics like Baer were not suggesting that the slain woman was anything less than a dedicated and first-rate analyst, who had spent years refining her understanding of al-Qaeda.

To the contrary, they said, CIA officials were to blame for giving her an operational assignment for which she was out of her depth.

On Friday, CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said that "the agency continues to take a close, exacting look at the Khost attack. This organization learns both from its successes and its setbacks."

"It’s strange, though," he added, "to see people—in some cases people who left here many years ago—posing as experts on operational tradecraft in the Afghan war zones."

In an interview with The Washington Post published Sunday, 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.

But a seasoned operative would have punched holes in her plan to bring Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi -- a Jordanian doctor 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.

"It's not like we haven't picked up bad guys in bad parts of town before," said Faddis.

"The most inexplicable error was to have met Balawi by committee," writes Baer, whose exploits were dramatized in the George Clooney movie Syriana. "Informants should always be met one-on-one. Always."

A case officer would have never permitted such lapses, Faddis says.

"You have security guys to bring the guy in. They’re shooters, and God bless ‘em, they know how to shoot,” Faddis said in an interview. “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."

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, said one CIA veteran who asked not to be identified, it pounced on him like a happy golden retriever.

A U.S. official familiar with the operation defended the agency's handling of Balawi. "You have to strike a balance between your own safety and showing a measure—a measure—of respect for a source thought capable of unlocking some key doors. There was no rush or over-eagerness," the official maintained.

Back in 2002, a senior CIA official named Margaret Henoch fought vainly within the agency to derail its embrace of another bad source, the notorious "Curveball," an Iraqi exile who claimed 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.

The CIA should have learned something from that, Henoch says.

"(I)t hasn't been fixed," Henoch said last week on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU-FM radio.

"I don't think they fixed the who-does-the-vetting" of potential spies, she added. "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."

According to multiple intelligence sources, no single, disinterested unit exists to vet the bona fides of potential recruits and challenge managers about the suitability of their targets.

"It's done by each branch or division manager," said one former CIA case officer, echoing others.

“It’s not being done the right way and there’s not enough of it," echoed Faddis, who among other assignments in a 25-year career led a CIA team into northern Iraq before the 2003 invasion. "I agree 100 per cent that it’s not being done, or not being done the right way."

Operational oversight was not helped by a switch at Kabul Station just prior to the Khost meeting. The outgoing CIA station chief, who had direct responsibility for the Khost base, was a former Army enlisted man dubbed "Spec-4" -- a low rank -- by case officers who held a dim view of his intelligence savvy. The man, whose name is not being revealed by The Post, has since been appointed chief of the CIA's Special Activities Division, responsible for special covert and paramilitary operations, a well-informed source said.

The CIA refused to confirm the assignment, but a U.S. official who demanded anonymity to discuss the outgoing station chief defended him.

“You’re talking about a very seasoned operations officer and a proven senior leader," the official said. "He’s had multiple tours overseas in a range of difficult environments. He’s no stranger to the collection of intelligence in battlefield settings, and he’s been decorated for valor.... His service in the early 1980s as an enlisted member of the Special Forces only added to his understanding of how things actually function on the ground."

Paradoxically, one of the key officials in the chain of command, the chief of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, has a reputation for being a stickler for details. (His name is being withheld from publication at CIA request.)

“He would have had a whole lot of conversations about what was to be done," said Faddis, who was head of the CTC's terrorist weapons of mass destruction unit when he retired two years ago. He called the CTC chief "very competent."

"He has no use for middle managers of any kind," added Faddis. "It’s his strength and his weakness …He reads all the cable traffic, and if you work for him, you’re supposed to, too. Woe to you if you don’t.”

“I would have thought that he would have been down on the weeds on this thing, if only because there wasn’t a case officer in charge” of the Khost base, Faddis added.

Because that’s his style?

“Exactly."

In another irony, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Dianne Feinstein of California, demanded that Panetta retain career operations officer Stephen R. Kappes as his deputy because of his experience in clandestine matters.

At the top, at least, this was the CIA's A-Team.

Amid searing criticism after the disaster, Panetta wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post saying the grievous losses in Khost were the cost of doing business in a bad part of the world.

"We have found no consolation ... in public commentary suggesting that those who gave their lives somehow brought it upon themselves because of 'poor tradecraft,'" Panetta wrote. "That's like saying Marines who die in a firefight brought it upon themselves because they have poor war-fighting skills."

No, say many CIA veterans, unanimously. it's saying Marines can die because of poor leadership.

Panetta's remarks, which were intended to cool the anger over Khost, only incensed old hands, some of whom thought someone in the organization should pay at least a small price for the deaths of their colleagues on the bitter plains of Khost.

But none expected it.

“I heard reference to some a review of some kind, but that’s all," Faddis said, "Nobody thinks heads are going to roll."

Baer said it was "tempting" to think the CIA was beyond repair, emphasizing that the country needs a first-rate intelligence service, however daunting a task that has proven to be.

"The United States still needs a civilian intelligence agency. (The military cannot be trusted to oversee all intelligence-gathering on its own.)," he wrote for GQ. "But the CIA—and especially the directorate of operations—It must be stripped down to its studs and rebuilt with a renewed sense of mission and purpose."

"It should start by getting the amateurs out of the field," Baer added. "And then it should impose professional standards of training and experience—the kind it upheld with great success in the past. If it doesn't, we're going to see a lot more Khosts."

CIA spokesman Gimigliano dismissed the complaints of Baer and other ex-operatives. "They don’t have all the facts of this case, yet they criticize those who were on the front lines on December 30th, including some whose lives were taken."

Such criticism, the spokesman said, is "disgraceful."

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