CIA bomber struck just before search

By R. Jeffrey Smith, Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima
Sunday, January 10, 2010; A01

The Jordanian had been "heralded as a superstar asset." Until Dec. 30, none of the Americans at the base had laid eyes on him.

The Jordanian doctor arrived in a red station wagon that came directly from Pakistan and sped through checkpoints at a CIA base in Afghanistan before stopping abruptly at an improvised interrogation center. Outside stood one of the CIA's top experts on al-Qaeda, ready to greet the doctor and hear him describe a way to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, the organization's No. 2 and a man long at the top of U.S. target lists.

The Jordanian exited the car with one hand in his pocket, according to the accounts of several U.S. officials briefed on the incident. An American security guard approached him to conduct a pat-down search and asked him to remove his hand. Instead, the Jordanian triggered a switch.

A sharp "CLMMMP" sound coincided with a brief flash and a small puff of smoke as thousands of steel pellets shredded glass, metal, cement and flesh in every direction.

A moment that CIA officials in Washington and Afghanistan had hoped would lead to a significant breakthrough in the fight against al-Qaeda instead became the most grievous single blow against the agency in the counterterror war.

Virtually everyone within sight of the suicide blast died immediately, including the al-Qaeda expert, who led the CIA team at the base; a 30-year-old analyst; and three other officers. Also killed were two American security guards contracted by the agency, a Jordanian intelligence officer and the car's driver. At least six others standing in the carport and nearby, including the CIA's second in command in Afghanistan, were wounded by pellets that had first perforated the vehicle.

Those at the scene on Dec. 30 had been trying to strike a balance between respect for their informant -- best demonstrated, in the regional tradition, by direct personal contact -- and caution, illustrated by the attentiveness of the security guards, according to CIA officials.

But more than a dozen current and former government officials interviewed for this article said they could not account in full for what they called a breach of operational security at the base in Afghanistan's Khost province. Advance pat-downs and other precautions are common in an age of suicide bombers, and meetings are kept small and remote. None of these sources would agree to be identified by name, in many cases because of their former or current work as covert operatives.

Several intelligence sources said the principal mistake was in trusting the bona fides of the Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who had never previously been invited to the base. The meeting was arranged with help from the Jordanian officer, who was among those waiting at the site for Balawi to arrive and was killed.

"You get somebody who has helped you and is incredibly important for the information he's going to potentially provide -- these are prize possessions," said a former CIA field officer. "Somebody comes, and it's like a celebration that they're coming. It's good to make them feel welcome. It's good to make them feel important."

The man who would prove to be a deadly attacker, the former officer said, "was heralded as a superstar asset. . . . So you get an important visitor coming. So you go out and meet him. . . . Is it bad tradecraft? Of course."

In a videotape released Saturday, Balawi called on Muslims to avenge the death of a Taliban leader killed by a U.S. drone strike in August. "We will always demand revenge for him inside America and outside," Balawi said.

Several other intelligence officials and veterans also said they worried that officers at the base and in Washington might have lost perspective amid an urgent clamor to kill al-Qaeda leaders in an agency traditionally more adept at the collection and analysis of intelligence than at assassination.

"The tradecraft that was developed over many years is passe," complained a recently retired senior intelligence official, also with decades of experience. "Now it's a military tempo where you don't have time for validating and vetting sources. . . . All that seems to have gone by the board. It shows there are not a lot of people with a great deal of experience in this field. The agency people are supporting the war-fighter and providing information for targeting, but the espionage part has become almost quaint."

Most of those who died were not case officers practiced at dealing directly with sources and typically placed at greatest risk, but either support officers, such as security guards or interpreters, or targeters and analysts -- those who direct the case officers and produce intelligence reports.

"It's not sloppiness," this former official added. "We just don't have time for it. Who wants to be known as the guy who turned away the tip that could have helped us get Osama bin Laden?"

CIA officials denied that such a breach occurred, noting that the bomber detonated the device at the moment he was about to be searched and when most of the victims were many yards away. "Security precautions were taken," a senior official said. "A tested source was brought in by a trusted friend and he had promising leads. These were all reasons to allow him to come on the base."

CIA Director Leon Panetta, in an opinion piece in Sunday's Washington Post, rejected the charge that the deaths were the result of poor tradecraft. "That's like saying Marines who die in a firefight brought it upon themselves because they have poor war-fighting skills," Panetta wrote.

Making an impression

The man who instigated the gathering at Forward Operating Base Chapman had been the subject of hopeful speculation for weeks. But until the afternoon of Dec. 30, none of the Americans at the base had laid eyes on him.

Balawi, 32 years old and darkly handsome, had captured the attention of analysts from Kabul to CIA headquarters with his claim of direct knowledge about Zawahiri, the al-Qaeda leader second only to Osama bin Laden and the brains behind the network's long-standing efforts to obtain nuclear and biological weapons.

After Jordanian authorities incarcerated him briefly in January 2009 because of his extremist Web postings, Balawi had traveled to Pakistan in March, ostensibly for medical studies. He subsequently sent tantalizing information by e-mail to Jordanian intelligence officials, who shared them with the Americans. The messages included descriptions of the results of U.S. missile attacks on al-Qaeda and Taliban training camps and safe houses, including details about victims and facilities that no one knew outside a small circle of intelligence analysts and the terrorists themselves.

Top CIA leaders in Washington, who were receiving updates on the man's reports, were impressed by "irrefutable proof" that he had been in the presence of al-Qaeda's leadership, one of the officials said. The proof included "photograph-type evidence," the official said.

In 2008, Balawi had declared on an Internet site that he wished to "be a bomb" so he could destroy Israelis for their treatment of Palestinians. Family members have said they were unaware of any help he was providing to the Jordanian government, noting that his prison stay left him agitated and visibly stressed. But Jordanian analysts found his missives to be compelling. "We made an effort to lure him in and verify the information he had," a senior Jordanian government official said.

Ultimately, agency officials decided that a face-to-face meeting was necessary, but the border region is so dangerous that the CIA had no safe houses of its own for rendezvous with informants, according to several intelligence officials who have transited the region.

A CIA official said senior agency officials in Washington were aware of the plan to meet him and supported it.

The CIA base at Khost is one of two in Afghanistan that the agency controls directly; the others are all located within larger military bases that provide more layered security under American control. Its strength -- and also its vulnerability -- stems from its location less than 10 miles from the Pakistani border and the tribal region of North Waziristan, where a Taliban faction known as the Haqqani network reportedly is headquartered.

Current and former officials who have visited the base describe it as a targeting center for Predator strikes and other operations inside Pakistan. Some involve Pashtun tribesmen loyal to the West who are accustomed to traversing the porous border for intelligence-gathering, bomb-targeting and other missions.

An intelligence official who agreed to speak on background about Balawi's suicide bombing called it "an important base, and [being] chief there is an important assignment. You don't get that one unless you know your stuff -- and the CIA had a world-class expert on al-Qaeda and counterterrorism operations running the place."

The official was referring to a nearly 20-year agency veteran killed in the attack, a 45-year-old woman with three children. At the CIA's request, The Washington Post has agreed not to use her name in this article.

A former reports officer in the agency's directorate of intelligence, she started tracking al-Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. She spent nearly 10 years in the agency's counterterrorism center and had several brief tours in Afghanistan before landing in Khost six months ago.

"People in the field are more engaged. She wanted to see that, to see the problems up close, and be on the cutting edge," said a former senior intelligence officer with whom she discussed the assignment.

The others who died included Jeremy Wise, 35, a security guard and former Navy SEAL who was remembered at a Virginia Beach memorial service last Thursday as a good-humored father to his young son; Dane Clark Paresi, 46, a former Special Forces soldier who saw duty in Iraq and elsewhere in southwest Asia and was the second CIA-contracted security guard; a CIA analyst and Rockford, Ill., native named Elizabeth Hanson, 30, whose academic background was in Russian literature; and CIA officer Scott Roberson, 39, a former Atlanta police detective.

Harold Brown, 37, another CIA officer and Fairfax father of three, also perished; he arrived in Afghanistan last April for a one-year term. His father said the government never explained the circumstances of his son's death, but that he was among "the best this country had . . . . And they believed in what they were doing."

Out of sight of spies

At the Khost base, several officials said, the outer gate is presumed to be closely watched by Taliban spies, so the car carrying Balawi did not stop there. The driver was directed to a relatively empty corner of the compound, away from the main CIA buildings, to the makeshift interrogation center.

CIA officials have been particularly pained by what they call misinformed suggestions that Balawi was able to set off his bomb in the midst of an adoring throng. One emphasized that having different specialists at the meeting was reasonable, and that Balawi "was about to be searched and he knew it. Had he been able to get closer -- and he couldn't -- he would have done even more damage."

The same official also cautions against second-guessing the episode from a distance, explaining that "the individuals with the best, firsthand knowledge of exactly what transpired are either dead or wounded."

But another veteran of intelligence operations who has been briefed on the bombing said the scene at the moment of the attack speaks to the "high level of importance given to the source, and also speaks to, they all wanted to be involved."

Staff writer Peter Finn and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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