Man who bombed CIA post provided useful intelligence about al-Qaeda

By Joby Warrick and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Jordanian double agent who staged a suicide attack on a CIA base last week had supplied intelligence agencies with credible leads about al-Qaeda plans to attack targets in Jordan and in Western countries, Jordanian government officials said Tuesday.

The bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, began volunteering information to Jordanian operatives last year from Pakistan, after moving to that country ostensibly to further his medical studies, two officials said in interviews. It was the first of a series of contacts, they said, that culminated on Dec. 30 with Balawi's admission to one of the CIA's most sensitive posts in eastern Afghanistan.

The new details about the informant-turned-bomber emerged amid increasing criticism by former intelligence officials of security procedures that allowed the man to enter a CIA base without being adequately searched, and to position himself in the middle of a large group of Americans before setting off the bomb.

The blast killed seven CIA officers and contractors -- two of them employees of Xe Services, the company formerly known as Blackwater USA, former intelligence officials confirmed -- and wounded six others in the deadliest attack on the agency in 25 years. A Jordanian intelligence captain who worked with the informant also was killed.

The CIA has declined to comment on the bomber or the circumstances of the attack, but U.S. intelligence officials pushed back Tuesday against suggestions that the attacker had duped the operatives after securing their trust.

"No one in American intelligence trusts completely -- that's the kind of language that's been used -- any asset with an extremist background. That's just wrong," said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the secrecy surrounding the investigation. "You have to use unsavory individuals to penetrate terrorist groups. A saint won't get you inside."

The reference to "unsavory individuals" was a tacit acknowledgment of the troubled past of Balawi, a physician and a self-proclaimed al-Qaeda sympathizer who had been arrested in Jordan for alleged ties to extremist groups.

A Jordanian government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Balawi had been detained by local authorities but later released for lack of evidence. Balawi later traveled on his own to Pakistan and then began e-mailing Jordanian officials with intelligence leads, including credible accounts of al-Qaeda plans to attack Jordanian and Western targets, the official said. A second Jordanian official confirmed the account, though both sources said they were unable to confirm that Balawi was the bomber in the Dec. 30 attack.

"We shared the information with friendly countries as part of our global efforts to combat terrorism and al-Qaeda," the first official said. He added that operatives "continued the contact . . . in an effort to lure him in and verify the information he had."

Former and current U.S. officials have said Balawi provided "actionable intelligence" to Jordanian and American operatives that led to lethal strikes against Taliban or al-Qaeda targets. CBS News reported Wednesday that some of those strikes involved the CIA's unmanned aircraft, which have staged more than 50 attacks in the past year.

Balawi's meeting at the CIA base, located in Khost province, was arranged after he promised to provide information about top al-Qaeda leaders. The meeting was initially set to take place in Pakistan, but the plans were changed for reasons that are not clear, the second Jordanian official said.

Former intelligence officials said they were aghast at Balawi's ability to surround himself with CIA officers on a base.

"I have no idea how a potential hostile ends up standing next to at least 13 CIA personnel," said a former agency case officer. "It's incredibly regrettable, the loss of life, but I have never heard of anything as unprofessional. There's an old infantry rule: Don't bunch up."

Traditionally, even informants who are assets of friendly countries are handled with caution, the former case officer said. "He is a potential hostile," he said.

The U.S. intelligence official who defended the agency said it is too soon to draw conclusions about whether security procedures were violated.

"All the facts aren't in on Khost, and you have people talking nonsense, claiming things they plainly don't know," the official said.

Special correspondent Rayna Kadri in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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