By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 31, 2009; A01
A suicide bomber infiltrated a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing at least eight Americans in what is believed to be the deadliest single attack on U.S. intelligence personnel in the eight-year-long war and one of the deadliest in the agency's history, U.S. officials said.
The attack represented an audacious blow to intelligence operatives at the vanguard of U.S. counterterrorism operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing officials whose job involves plotting strikes against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups that are active on the frontier between the two nations. The facility that was targeted -- Forward Operating Base Chapman -- is in the eastern Afghan province of Khost, which borders North Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal area that is believed to be al-Qaeda's home base.
U.S. sources confirmed that all the dead and injured were civilians and said they believed that most, if not all, were CIA employees or contractors. At least one Afghan civilian also was killed, the sources said.
It is unclear exactly how the assailant managed to gain access to the heavily guarded U.S.-run post, which serves as an operations and surveillance center for the CIA. The bomber struck in what one U.S. official described as the base's fitness center.
In addition to the dead, eight people were wounded, several of them seriously, U.S. government officials said.
While many details remained vague Wednesday, the attack appears to have killed more U.S. intelligence personnel than have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion began in late 2001. The CIA has previously acknowledged the deaths of four officers in fighting in Afghanistan in the past eight years.
"It is the nightmare we've been anticipating since we went into Afghanistan and Iraq," said John E. McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director who now serves on a board that supports children of CIA officers slain on the job. "Our people are often out on the front line, without adequate force protection, and they put their lives quite literally in jeopardy."
The CIA has declined to comment publicly on the attack until relatives of the dead are notified. A former senior agency official said it was the worst single-day casualty toll for the agency since eight CIA officers were killed in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April 1983.
"I know that the American people will appreciate their sacrifice. I pray that the government they serve does the same," said the official, who insisted on anonymity because the agency has not yet publicly acknowledged the deaths.
The CIA has been quietly bolstering its ranks in Afghanistan in recent weeks, mirroring the surge of military troops there. Agency officers coordinated the initial U.S.-led attack against the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001, and have since provided hundreds of spies, paramilitary operatives and analysts in the region for roles ranging from counterterrorism to counternarcotics. The agency also operates the remote-control aircraft used in aerial strikes on suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the lawless tribal provinces on the Pakistan side of the border. The campaign of strikes in Pakistan has not been officially acknowledged, but it has escalated rapidly in the past two years.
Intelligence experts who have visited U.S. bases in the region say the CIA officers at Chapman would have focused mainly on recruiting local operatives and identifying targets.
"The best intelligence is going to come from the field, and that means working closely with the Afghans," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
The loss of experienced CIA field officers would be particularly damaging to U.S. efforts in the area "because they know the terrain," Hoffman said. "Every American death in a theater of war is tragic, but these might be more consequential given these officers' unique capabilities and attributes."
The bomber and those who aided him must have had very good intelligence to gain access to the secure base without arousing suspicion, he said.
Ninety CIA deaths are memorialized by stars on a wall in the agency's Langley headquarters. The inscription on the memorial reads: "We are the nation's first line of defense. We accomplish what others cannot accomplish and go where others cannot go."
U.S. military officials and diplomats confirmed Wednesday's attack and the eight civilian deaths. "We mourn the loss of life in this attack," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.
The number of U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan this year has reached 310, the highest one-year total since the start of the war. Twelve U.S. troops have been killed since Dec. 1.
Khost has been the scene of several major attacks this year. In May, an attack killed 13 civilians and injured 36 others. Seven Afghan civilians were killed and 21 were wounded by an improvised explosive device detonated outside the main gate of Forward Operating Base Salerno on May 13.
Also Wednesday, NATO announced that four Canadian troops and a journalist from Canada were killed in an explosion in Kandahar province, one of the most dangerous areas of southern Afghanistan.
The international coalition said the journalist was traveling with the troops on a patrol near Kandahar city when they were attacked Wednesday.
Kandahar is a hotbed of the insurgency. On Dec. 24, eight people, including a child, were killed when a man driving a horse-drawn cart laden with explosives detonated the cache outside a guesthouse frequented by foreigners. The day before, another Canadian soldier was killed by a homemade bomb in the province.
According to figures compiled by the Associated Press, the latest casualties bring to 32 the number of Canadian forces killed in Afghanistan this year.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung, Michael D. Shear and Perry Bacon Jr. and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.