The director of the Central Intelligence Agency has spoken out to defend the agency against accusations that lax security allowed a Jordanian man to kill seven CIA agents and agency contractors when he blew himself up in Khost Province, Afghanistan on Dec. 30.
In an opinion piece published in Sunday's Washington Post, Leon Panetta stridently denied reports that the deaths were made possible by the agency’s “poor tradecraft.” He said Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was about to be searched by security personnel, some distance from CIA agents, when he detonated his explosives.
This was not a question of trusting a potential intelligence asset, even one who had provided information that we could verify independently. It is never that simple, and no one ignored the hazards. […]
Our officers were engaged in an important mission in a dangerous part of the world. They brought to that mission their skills, expertise and willingness to take risks. That's how we succeed at what we do. And sometimes in a war, that comes at a very high price.
US and Jordanian intelligence agencies believed Mr. Balawi was working for them, and he had reportedly passed along intelligence about Al Qaeda leadership. He had been called to the CIA’s Camp Chapman in the dangerous area near the border with Pakistan to talk about ways to find Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri when he detonated his explosives, killing the CIA operatives, as well as his Jordanian handler.
A Pakistani television station aired a video Saturday showing Balawi sitting next to Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, reports the Los Angeles Times. Balawi reportedly tells Mr. Mehsud that he has shared US intelligence secrets with militants, and calls for attacks on the US to avenge the killing last year of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. (The article contains a clip of the video.)
The Washington Post previously reported that Balawi possibly was allowed to get close to the agents without going through a security checkpoint because they perceived him as such a high-value asset.
"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."
Robert Baer, a former CIA operative, said that even if the US agents were planning to search al-Balawi they possibly made a mistake in allowing him to enter the base first. […]
"He was about to be searched and people were watching him, anybody who has been around suicide bombings knows you do not want to do this in an open area when people are close by.
"The pellets in these bombs go quite a distance."
That so many people had gathered to hear [Balawi] 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.