October 26th, 2010
10:56 AM ET

CIA suicide bomber: What went wrong depends on who you ask

 In the wake of the deadly attack at one of its bases in Afghanistan, there is disagreement among CIA veterans about what went wrong.

Intelligence officials, both current and former, all agree that mistakes were made. But what that says about the broader problems in the CIA is a matter of debate. Ask some and it is a matter of communication. Others, a problem of a lack of experience.

In a report finalized this week, CIA Director Leon Panetta concluded it was a systemic failure within the agency and not the actions of one person or group that enabled a Jordanian informant to blow himself up along with nine other people at the remote CIA post.

The internal agency review indicated poor communications in the field and at headquarters, insufficient security measures at the base and lax management oversight all contributed to the circumstances that culminated with Humam Khalil Abi-Mulal Balawi detonating the bomb last December at the CIA forward operating base in Khost, near the border with Pakistan. Killed were seven CIA employees, an Afghan driver and a Jordanian intelligence officer. Six CIA officers were seriously injured.

The CIA and other government agencies were heavily criticized after 9/11 for not sharing information with each other, which might have prevented the deadly terrorist attacks. The agency has made a number of changes over the years to correct the problems. But following the failed attempt to blow up an airliner last Christmas, a Senate Intelligence Committee review faulted the CIA for failing to disseminate relevant intelligence about the suspected bomber to all offices and individuals who needed to know.

In the Khost case, CIA officers both in the field and at headquarters did not pass on pertinent information or did so through informal channels such as texting and e-mails. U.S. intelligence officials say the officers at the Khost base were not aware of all of the reporting on the informant which might have made them more cautious in dealing with the man they thought was a valuable asset.

A former senior intelligence officer familiar with the report said it appears to be more of a failure to appreciate the information than it was a failure to share it.

"I think it's less the impediments to moving information as it was to the judgment that this didn't deserve to be moved," said the former official.

A current U.S. intelligence official disputed any contention that the CIA continues to have an information-sharing problem. He said the situation with the Christmas Day bombing attempt on a U.S.-bound aircraft was very different from what happened leading up to Khost. The airliner incident pointed to a problem with putting the bits and pieces of information together - connecting the dots - to prevent a potential attack.

The official said the issue with Khost was with vetting the asset.

"Concerns were raised in Washington and overseas that Balawi might be a double agent, but they weren't properly communicated," said the official, and added, "No one - even those who expressed skepticism - thought he was a possible suicide bomber."

However, a former intelligence officer who served mostly overseas in various hotspots, said the real problem was a failure of leadership in the field, and blamed bosses at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, for putting a person not qualified in charge of the base.

The CIA post was lead by Jennifer Matthews, one of the CIA's top al Qaeda analysts, who had spent very little time in overseas assignments and had been in charge of Khost for only a few months.

The current and former officials that CNN talked to never questioned the decision to meet with the informant - there was reason to believe he had critical information - but some wondered how he could get so close to so many CIA employees before anyone attempted to search him.

The former spy said all informants in that region have to be considered a threat no matter how much they have been vetted.

"Any time you're 10 miles from the federally administered tribal areas in Pakistan, you have to believe every asset is a danger and that everything you do could get you killed," said the officer.

Even the current U.S. intelligence official indicated, "someone was probably going to die that day, even if Balawi had been searched further out."

But the former operative did not believe Matthews, who was among those killed in the attack, had the necessary experience in the field to understand the full scope of the perils.

This officer as well as others that CNN spoke to did not place the blame directly on Matthews.

"She was a fine al Qaeda analyst, but she wasn't prepared for the field and the people who sent her out there are ultimately responsible for what happened," said the former operative.

Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA bin Laden unit who hired Matthews, said she was equipped to handle the job.

"She had more experience, more training than a great number of people we send overseas to go into harm's way," said Scheuer. He believes there was probably less rigorous security with the informant because he had been recruited by the Jordanian spy service, a trusted ally.

Most of the current and former intelligence officers would not speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue within the agency.

CIA spokesman George Little took exception to those who he felt spoke ill of fallen colleagues, saying, "Criticizing them is bad enough, but doing so anonymously is even more shameful."

But it does raise the question of whether the CIA has a sufficient number of skilled operatives - people with language proficiency, cultural awareness and war-zone training - to work in the terrorist mine fields overseas.

One of the recommendations in the CIA Khost review called for "expanding our training effort for both managers and officers on hostile environments and counterintelligence challenges."

According to the CIA, more than 50 percent of the current workforce came on board following the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S. intelligence official said there is a very seasoned group of younger officers who are more experienced to deal with today's high-risk assets than their counterparts during the Cold War days.

The new generation has served in war zones - in Iraq, in Afghanistan - and has been trained to deal with deadly terrorists, said the official, who added, "Cold War officers generally did not fear for their lives."

The former senior intelligence official agreed that the quality of covert officers is really good, but acknowledged there are a lot of junior people in senior roles. "There is an expanded force, expanded mission which is going to be stretched and extended, but you have to play with the team you got," said the former official.

A former overseas operative said the bench is thin. "There are not enough trained operatives and certainly there are not enough with the skill sets for the region," the officer said, referring to the Middle East and southwest Asia. The officer worried about a young workforce and the potential for lethal mistakes in the field.

Scheuer said the officers at Khost were "emblematic" of the problems faced by the CIA in the current international environment. "The agency and military are stretched to the breaking point in terms of people. You don't have three, four, five years to train people before they go overseas. It's just the nature of the game," he said.

There could also be a cultural aspect that influences the actions of covert officers. The U.S. intelligence official said, "CIA officers are trained to protect their sources, who risk their freedom or lives to provide us information that helps protect our country. One lesson learned is that the agency needs to step up its evaluation of assets in dangerous areas, especially the war zones."

What really bugs Scheuer about all of the finger-pointing surrounding the Khost incident is that people seem to forget there is a "talented, patient, clever opponent" out there.

"The enemy beat us. The British intelligence service, the American service, any service would have been proud to conduct the operation they conducted against us. This was a heck of an operation and they got us even though we've torn the guts out them for 14 years," said Scheuer.

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