For the CIA and other espionage agencies, double agents can provide a rich trove of intelligence. Who is better postioned to provide crucial information about an adversary than someone whom that adversary already trusts?
But with the potential of high reward comes high risk. In the end, whom is the agent preparing to betray? Such operations can go wrong, sometimes disastrously so, as demonstrated by the eight people at a CIA base in Afghanistan killed last week by a double agent who turned out to be a suicide bomber.
One of the casualties was a Jordanian spy, and seven were CIA officers. The losses were the heaviest for the CIA since 1983, when eight agency personnel were killed in the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut.
“It’s a terrible tragedy for their families and the agency,” says Clare Lopez, a longtime CIA official who is now a vice president of The Intelligence Summit, a nonprofit educational forum. “It’s also a great loss of expertise."
On Tuesday US officials confirmed that the suicide bomber was a Jordanian doctor who claimed to have information about Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command and who was being recruited as a double agent to infiltrate Al Qaeda.
His name was Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, according to news wire reports. Arrested more than a year ago by Jordanian intelligence, he was thought to have been turned, so that he could be sent back into the field to glean more information about Al Qaeda’s activities.
In fact, he was only pretending to have switched loyalties, making him a triple agent. Invited to Camp Chapman, a secure CIA forward base in Khost Province, he was not closely searched, due to the agency’s perception of his high value. This allowed him to conceal explosives on his body, which he detonated shortly after a meeting began with debriefers.
That so many people had gathered to hear him may be an indication of how hungry US intelligence is for hard information about Al Qaeda’s top levels – and how hard that information is to come by.
“It’s extremely difficult to penetrate [Al Qaeda],” says Ms. Lopez. “The only way to be successful is to really immerse yourself in the local culture.”
Yet the agents must have known they were running some risk. To professional spies, double agent operations famously are difficult to pursue.
“The double agent operation is one of the most demanding and complex counterintelligence activities in which an intelligence service can engage,” begins a classic CIA publication on the subject, “Observations on the Double Agent,” written in 1962 and declassified in 1994.
If the US is inheriting the agent from another nation’s spies – as it was in this instance, since the bomber was brought to the attention of the US by the Jordanians – it needs to “delve into the true origins of the case,” warns the 1962 document.
Whether US agents heeded that admonition in the recent tragedy remains to be discovered.
The cold-war-era CIA analysis ends with the reminder that double agents, almost by definition, “have a number of traits in common with the con man.” Last week, that turned out to be so.
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