CIA: Systemic failures led to suicide attack

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The CIA was cautioned last year that a self-proclaimed al-Qaeda turncoat might be luring the agency into an ambush, a warning that came weeks before the man killed seven agency operatives in a suicide attack in Afghanistan, an internal investigation has found.

The warning from a Jordanian intelligence officer was never passed along, one of a chain of lapses that ultimately allowed a double agent to penetrate the base, CIA Director Leon Panetta said Tuesday. Panetta provided an overview of the agency's still-classified report, which he said points to multiple failures but stops short of recommending disciplinary measures against any individuals.

Standard procedures used in dealing with informants - including proper vetting and security precautions - were relaxed amid an eagerness by CIA officers to meet Humam al-Balawi, a Jordanian physician who promised he could deliver al-Qaeda's No. 2 commander, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Panetta said.

"There was a systemic breakdown with regard to the kind of judgment and scrutiny that should have been applied here," the CIA director said in reviewing the key findings with reporters at the agency's headquarters in McLean.

Panetta said he had ordered nearly two dozen changes in agency procedures, including tightened security and an enhanced role for counterintelligence specialists tasked with weeding out double agents. But he said the investigation did not assign blame to any person or people, concluding instead that the deaths were the result of failures that cut across departments.

"All of us bear responsibility, and all of us have to fix this," Panetta said. "It would have been easier to go after one person, so then everyone else could just go back to business as usual."

The investigation was conducted by a task force of 14 longtime officers, many of them from the CIA's counterintelligence division. A separate independent review by former U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering and former Department of Homeland Security intelligence chief Charles E. Allen concurred with the findings, Panetta said.

The Dec. 30 bombing was the deadliest single incident for the CIA in 25 years. It killed five CIA officers and two contractors, as well as Balawi's Jordanian handler and an Afghan driver. Balawi, who was permitted to enter the CIA's Khost base in eastern Afghanistan on the promise that he could lead officers to Zawahiri, was within 50 feet of at least 13 intelligence officers when he detonated a hidden bomb, just seconds before he was to be searched.

Balawi was initially recruited in Jordan, and until the day of the bombing he had never met any of Khost's American officers. His only contact had been with his handler, a 34-year-old captain in the Jordanian intelligence service.

Jordan's General Intelligence Division works closely with the CIA on many counterterrorism cases, and its operatives are considered among the world's finest. In the Balawi case, however, there was dissension among Jordanian officers regarding the informant's reliability, the CIA internal investigation found.

According to Panetta's account, in early December a Jordanian officer approached one of his CIA counterparts in Amman, Jordan, to share his doubts about Balawi's trustworthiness. The Jordanian said he worried that Balawi might be a double agent, citing behavior that he considered troubling. It was peculiar, he said, that Balawi had repeatedly sought to persuade the Americans to meet him in the Taliban stronghold of Miram Shah, a city in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan.

The Jordanian cautioned that Balawi might be trying to lure the agency into an ambush, according to agency investigators.

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