CIA: Systemic failures led to suicide attack

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; A1

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.

The unnamed CIA officer who received the warning did not pass it along to others because he thought the Jordanians were simply squabbling internally over who should handle the Balawi case. Balawi by then had already impressed the CIA by providing a stream of intelligence that proved that he had gained access to top Taliban and al-Qaeda figures. An intelligence official privy to the report's conclusions said the officer's decision to discount the warning was "reasonable," based on evidence available at the time, "but it turned out to be wrong."

The CIA set up a meeting with Balawi inside the agency's highly secure compound at Khost, and it allowed the operative to pass through base security without being searched. Panetta said it was standard practice at Khost to defer searches of trusted informants until they were inside the fence, because of the risk that they would be spotted and identified by ordinary Afghan citizens who congregate near the gate seeking work or medical care.

Investigators cited repeated communication failures and a lack of clarity over management of the Balawi case. The report also noted that key officers never served in a war zone, although Panetta said their professional backgrounds did not appear to have been decisive. He added that some of the events leading up to the bombing probably will never be fully understood because the principal decision-makers were killed, including base chief Jennifer Matthews, an expert on al-Qaeda who had taken charge of the facility two months earlier.

"A lot of key insights have been lost because the people who had those insights have died," he said.

Still, one of Panetta's new initiatives raises the minimum requirements for both the training and experience of officers assigned to similar posts in the future. The agency already has implemented more rigorous security checks at agency bases, while also agreeing to establish a "War Zone Board" of longtime officers to ensure that training and security measures are adequate. Panetta also ordered the creation of a counterintelligence "Red Cell" to help evaluate potential security threats from undercover operatives and others.

In a statement released to agency employees Tuesday, the director hailed the "bravery" of the fallen CIA officers and noted that it is impossible to eliminate all risks for intelligence officers in war zones. But he added, "We can and will do a better job of protecting our officers."

Several former CIA officers have been outspoken in criticizing the agency's security lapses at Khost, suggesting that major restructuring is needed. But former CIA director Michael V. Hayden, Panetta's predecessor, said he concurs with the agency's findings and approach.

"It is obvious that there are lessons to be learned, but these are big issues that are systemic and not personal," he said.

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