CIA Had Warning on Khost Attack, Will Not Hold Anyone Responsible

Jordanian intelligence warned the CIA that Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the Khost bomber, might be working for al Qaeda three weeks before al-Balawi killed 7 CIA people in the attack. But because the CIA still suffers from the same information sharing shortcomings problems that prevented it from finding out about 9/11, the CIA still allowed al-Balawi onto their forward operating base.

Three weeks before a Jordanian double agent set off a bomb at a remote Central Intelligence Agency base in eastern Afghanistan last December, a C.I.A. officer in Jordan received warnings that the man might be working for Al Qaeda, according to an investigation into the deadly attack.

But the C.I.A. officer did not tell his bosses of the suspicions — brought to the Americans by a Jordanian intelligence officer — that the man might try to lure Americans into a trap, according to the recently completed investigation by the agency.

But the CIA is not holding anyone responsible for this horrible lapse, partly because the station chief killed in the attack would have received much of the blame.

Mr. Panetta said that the report did not recommend holding a single person or group of individuals directly accountable for “systemic failures.”

“This is a war,” he said, adding that it is important for the C.I.A. to continue to take on risky missions.

[snip]

Current and former C.I.A. officials said that the decision not to hold officers directly responsible for the bombing was partly informed by an uncomfortable truth: some of them might have been among those killed in the bombing.

The officials said there was particular sensitivity about how much fault to assign to Jennifer Matthews, a Qaeda expert who was the chief of the Khost base.

Before you accept that explanation, re-read the piece that Bob Baer wrote on the Khost killing in April. He attributes the lapses to the de-professionalization of operations within CIA, and argues that Matthews (whom he calls Kathy) was set up to fail.

On January 10, 2010, CIA director Leon Panetta wrote a Washington Post op-ed in which he disputed that poor tradecraft was a factor in the Khost tragedy. Panetta is wrong.

An old operative I used to work with in Beirut said he would have picked up Balawi himself and debriefed him in his car, arguing that any agent worth his salt would never expose the identity of a valued asset to a foreigner like the Afghan driver. I pointed out that if he’d been there and done it that way, he’d probably be dead now. “It’s better than what happened,” he said.

One thing that should have raised doubts about Balawi was that he had yet to deliver any truly damaging intelligence on Al Qaeda, such as the location of Zawahiri or the plans for the Northwest bomb plot. Balawi provided just enough information to keep us on the hook, but never enough to really hurt his true comrades. And how was it that Balawi got Al Qaeda members to pose for pictures? This should have been another sign. These guys don’t like their pictures taken. So there were a few clear reasons not to trust Balawi, or at least to deal with him with extreme caution.

But the most inexplicable error was to have met Balawi by committee. Informants should always be met one-on-one. Always.

The fact is that Kathy, no matter how courageous and determined, was in over her head. This does not mean she was responsible for what happened. She was set up to fail. The battlefield was tilted in Al Qaeda’s favor long ago—by John Deutch and his reforms, by the directors who followed him, by the decision to drop the paramilitary course from the mandatory curriculum (which would have made Kathy a lot more wary of explosives), and by two endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have worn the CIA down to a nub. Had Kathy spent more time in the field, more time running informants, maybe even been stung by one or two bad doubles, the meeting in Khost probably would have been handled differently—and at the very least there would have been one dead rather than eight.

And while two of the recommendations Leon Panetta offered in response to the investigation was to provide more training on counterintelligence and to make sure veterans are involved in the most critical counterterrorism operations, that doesn’t address what Baer, at least says needs to happen: fixing the entire career path of CIA professionals out in the field.

Is not holding anyone responsible for this horrible mistake about protecting a CIA officer who died after being set up to fail? Or protecting her superiors who put her in that position?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

  1. bmaz says:

    Interesting they openly muse about trying to pin it on Jennifer Matthews (which may well be appropriate to a big extent) but won’t because she is dead and cannot defend herself – yet, don’t even mention hammering the idiots that thought a green female drone targeter was a fine choice to lead a FOB on the edge of hell like that.

  2. Jeff Kaye says:

    Ah, but Baer tips his hand…

    She was set up to fail. The battlefield was tilted in Al Qaeda’s favor long ago—by John Deutch and his reforms, by the directors who followed him…

    The Deutch “reforms” were, as I noted in an article over a year ago, a reaction to revelations of CIA abuses, namely operating with death squads, which included the killing of Jennifer Harbury’s Guatamalan husband. It was a brave Democratic politician who revealed what was going on then, and the CIA was rocked somewhat back on their heels.

    In any case, Baer has an agenda. The Khost bombing involved a double or maybe even triple agent, assuming there were weren’t others involved. In such a case, besides blood, the stage will be spilling disinformation all over the place. There is no way we’re going to get the real truth.

    • MadDog says:

      Things that I’ve not seen discussed anywhere is the likelihood that there was more than one double agent visiting the CIA Khost outpost, and that Balawi & Co. (Al Qaeda) had scoped out the CIA Khost SOP beforehand in great detail.

      Think about it.

      How would Balawi & Co. have known that he wasn’t going to be frisked at the front gate by Afghan security guards far away from any CIA officer?

      Why would Balawi & Co. have risked a Balawi suicide if they hadn’t known they’d achieve the likelihood of mass CIA casualties?

      It wouldn’t have made any sense for Balawi & Co. (Al Qaeda) to waste Balawi’s purported CIA value on a few Afghan security guards at the front gate. They had to know going in that their chances of success (mass CIA casualties) was a high probability.

      This was not a spur of the moment suicide bombing but was instead a well-planned and researched attack.

      • Jeff Kaye says:

        The Jordanians claimed in January of this year (as reported in Time Magazine, in Times of India) that Balawi was not the bomber…. and then…. a video is released only a few days later with Balawi claiming the bombing will be to avenge Pakistani Taliban leader Mehsud.

        The idea there was another inside contact is compelling. I think this was an operation run at very high levels by all concerned, on both sides, and we can’t know what the game exactly is at that level. Or maybe it had something to do with the “murky chain of command” mentioned in the article. Historically, that kind of murkiness settles around situations where there is heavy counterinelligence work going on. Wilderness of mirrors, and all that.

        • emptywheel says:

          Note that Baer says Balawi’s handler had his own doubts. That doesn’t necessarily sit well w/the excuse the CIA guy had for not passing on concerns of another Jordanian.

  3. MadDog says:

    Here’s Panetta’s spin:

    Message from the Director: Lessons from Khowst

    …The decision to meet him at the Khowst base—with the objective of gaining additional intelligence on high priority terrorist targets—was the product of consultations between Headquarters and the field…

    …These missteps occurred because of shortcomings across several Agency components in areas including communications, documentation, and management oversight

    …Based on the findings of the task force and the independent review, responsibility cannot be assigned to any particular individual or group…

    …Drawing on the work of the task force and its insights, it’s time to move forward

    (My Bold)

    Or shorter CIA Director Panetta: “After what we have learned, I’ve decided not to learn.”

  4. orionATL says:

    thanks, jeff.

    without that postscript i would have made erroneous conclusions.

    baer, though, discusss two topics:

    – deutsch whom he mentions briefly and disses

    – cia professional skills which he discusses with illustration and disses.

    my sermon tonight is about our intelligence bureaucracies’ incompetence in responding to warnings delivered in person

    vs

    the never sated demand by these same bureaucracies for electronic survaillance of personal communications.

    both the cia and the fbi have been said to have had the knowledge to prevent the september 11, 2001 airplane bombings in nycity.

    recently it was revealed that the fbi had been warned of the attack on mumbai, india by not one, but two, of one of the planners’ wives.

    the u. s . embassy in nigeria received personal information from the family of the undie bomber, that he was mentally unstable and radicalized ( like some tea party folk).

    now i read here that the massacre of cia personnel at khost might have been prevented given the cia had been warned about the sucide’s allegiance.

    these, and no doubt many other, failures of the cia and fbi to comprehend the significance and act on info provided in person to them

    stands in strong contrast to the obama admin’s current effort to strengthen the fbi’s (at least) hold on u.s. communications companies thru additional punitive legislation.

    extraordinary incompetence on the day-to-day stuff of intelligence work

    combined with an insatiable desire to use the magic of science and technology to do their gumshoe work for them.

    magical thinking in war!

  5. RAMA says:

    The new, post-2001 paradigm is that no one in government is ever held accountable for anything (including fraud, murder, torture, destroying the world’s economy, lying to Congress, outing CIA agents, kidnapping), unless they’re Democratic politicians. It’s a recipe for the institutionalization of incompetence and criminal behavior.

  6. bobschacht says:

    …and argues that [Jennifer] Matthews (whom he calls Kathy) was set up to fail.

    What’s up with this? You don’t mix up the names of the people involved in a critical operation like this, without some explanation.

    If Angleton were still around, he’d never have allowed a meeting like this.

    Bob in AZ

    • bmaz says:

      I don’t think he did mix up the names at all; I could be wrong, but my recollection is that when Baer was commenting, Matthews name was not public and “Kathy” was a cover name.

  7. joanneleon says:

    FYI:

    The Emergency Committee for Israel…has launched a new independent expenditure PAC that can solicit unlimited contributions…… ECI PAC, a so-called Super PAC, will disclose its contributions and will run ads through the election

    ALSO: Today, the Republican Jewish Coalition says it’s going up with A $1 million campaign featuring ad below, starring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and criticizing Sestak for favoring civilian trials for terror suspects
    http://www.politico.com/blogs/bensmith/1010/New_Emergency_Committee_arm_RJC_keep_pounding_Sestak_on_Israel.html?showall

    • skdadl says:

      I’m horrified and disgusted, harpie — I wrote to Jeff Kaye about that article earlier today, and he’s looking that over too.

      See also an article turned up by my blogboss, pogge: Dr Welner seems to have something of a career as a paid witness.

      His Web site describes his firm as pioneering a “peer review” process that makes it “America’s foremost forensic consulting institution.”

      But defense attorney Wendell Odom brought out during the trial that Welner’s idea of “peer review” differs considerably from that of academic journals.

      When a scientist submits a paper to a first-rate journal, the editors send the paper to experts in the same field to critique. The author has no say in the selection of the reviewers. The result is that many papers don’t get published.

      But, as Odom brought out, Welner himself hires his “peer reviewers.”

      Simply put, employees and employers are not “peers.”

      This isn’t science or medicine or law — it is politics and needs to be taken apart that way. It is total Clockwork Orange stuff.

    • skdadl says:

      PS: Note correct sp of Dr Michael Welner’s name.

      Also note that Steven Edwards is one of the four journos expelled (temporarily) from GTMO last spring. He can’t help it if he works for the Sun chain (right-wing media chain in Canada).

    • skdadl says:

      Oh, another PS: pogge wonders whether someone should ask Dr Welner how much he’s being paid to appear at Khadr’s military commission.

      • harpie says:

        Thanks for the info and correction, skdadl. [What is wrong with me and my typing/spelling, lately???!! oy!]

        When I googled Welner, I did see one reference to a “jaw dropping” amount of money for testifying in one posting.

        I read the site of that “depravity survey”…didn’t actually do the survey. Under FAQ’a there’s one [which I was asking myself, as well] about isn’t “evil” a theological term. Welner’s answer is not very convincing. I can’t hear that word without thinking of Bush-and-The-Cheney-Gang.

        Here’s the original article in JAAPL:

        Response to Simon: Legal Relevance Demands That Evil Be Defined and Standardized; Michael Welner, MD; J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 31:417–21, 2003

        And here is an article responding to it [5 years later]:

        The Recurrence of an Illusion: The Concept of “Evil” in Forensic Psychiatry; James L. Knoll, IV, MD; 2008

        It’s interesting that this tidbit is in his profile at the Survey site [which links to his Wiki profile]

        Both his parents were born in Poland, where their entire families perished in the Holocaust.

  8. harpie says:

    I mean, what kind of way is this for a scientist to be talking [from the article linked @13]:

    “In search of goodness, I have sought out any input documenting righteous and selfless deeds of Omar Khadr from inside custody, in particular toward non-Muslims, and will speak to what I found in my testimony,” he said.

    • skdadl says:

      Yes, lines like that … So much in that article distressed me, but most of all his smarmy flattery of the DFAIT (and CSIS) interrogators who went down to talk to Omar. No way were those guys there to help Omar, who figured that out pretty quickly. They were there to pump him for information, which they then shared with the U.S. gov, while making no efforts at all to extract a Canadian citizen, as all other Western nations did.

      The Supremes here have ruled that Omar’s Charter rights were violated in that process (forgive me for eliding details for the moment, but I can look it up) and forced the release of some of the DFAIT and CSIS memos from GTMO, as well as the infamous video.

      Me, I think every agent who went down there only to get intel from Omar should be on trial, and certainly any medical professional who was there not to offer treatment but to extract intel should be on trial too.

  9. harpie says:

    Talk about “smarmy”:

    “The U.S. government’s decision to retain me reflects their willingness to risk my arriving at an unhelpful opinion in order to gain the bottom line on Khadr,” Welner said. “Many who reach out to me walk away because they choose not to take that risk.”

    yuck, and my tax dollars pay for this.