Comment: CIA Deaths a Failure of Intelligence, Not Security

Khalil al-Balawi

Khalil al-Balawi

Early on Thursday, rumors began spreading among intelligence observers that the December 30 suicide blast in Khost, Afghanistan, which killed seven and seriously injured six CIA personnel, went off in the open air, and not inside a gym on the base, as had previously been reported. Soon afterwards, an article written by CIA director Leon Panetta for the Sunday edition of The Washington Post, dated January 10, was published by the paper two days early. The op-ed is an apparent attempt by the CIA leadership to officially get the word out that suicide bomber Humam Khalil al-Balawi “was about to be searched by our security officers –a distance away from other intelligence personnel– when he set off his explosives”, according to Panetta.

The paper later aired further information about the bombing, including the revelation that the station wagon that drove al-Balawi from Pakistan to Forward Operating Base Chapman did not stop at the outer gate of the base, because it is “presumed to be closely watched by Taliban spies”. Instead, security guards intended to search the Jordanian doctor at a relatively remote area inside base.

So why were so many killed or seriously injured? One source says that the CIA team at the base, who had never before met al-Balawi, but had heard of him, had been assured that he had been “in the presence of al-Qaeda’s leadership” and that he had vital information on the whereabouts of the organization’s number two, Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri. It was precisely this anticipation, says the source, that led the CIA team to gather around al-Balawi before he was searched. “They all wanted to get involved”, he says.

The latest Post revelations give credence to the view that the bloody attack of December 30 was primarily a failure of intelligence (and, to some extent, counterintelligence), not security. Al-Qaeda was able to exploit operational vulnerabilities in a meticulous and systematic fashion, managing to deliver a crucial blow to the Agency, the likes of which we have not seen in nearly 30 years. Jordan’s General Intelligence Department was responsible for the primary error of recruiting al-Balawi, apparently after inflicting some mental or physical abuse on him while holding him in an Amman jail. But the CIA paid a heavy price for the Jordanians’ mishandling, precisely because of its desperate need for reliable information on al-Qaeda’s leadership. The Agency’s critical shortage of trustworthy informants generates its heavy dependence on Pakistani, Jordanian, Saudi, Egyptian, Indian, and other intelligence agencies. This vulnerability was precisely what enabled al-Balawi to appear genuinely valuable, to easily evade counterintelligence safeguards, and to strike at the very heart of the CIA’s presence in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands.

One CIA insider told The Washington Post that the Agency simply doesn’t have the luxury to be meticulous in the frontlines of Afghanistan. “We just don’t have time for it”, he said. The pressures of what is essentially an increasingly hasty US military campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan mean that “[t]he tradecraft that was developed over many years is passé“, another intelligence official said. “Now it’s a military tempo where you don’t have time for validating and vetting sources […]. All that seems to have gone by the board”. So, there you have it: the definition of an intelligence/counterintelligence failure.

In light of the above, Leon Panetta’s admonition that he finds “no consolation” in criticism that the deaths of seven personnel resulted from poor tradecraft, sounds unconvincing. The CIA director may boast that the Agency is “proud to be on the front lines against al-Qaeda”, but it would be preferable if that pride resulted from successful operations and reliance on time-tested intelligence methods, not tragic massacres of the kind we witnessed on December 30.

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* Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis has been writing and teaching on the politics of intelligence for over ten years. His areas of academic expertise include the institutional analysis of the intelligence community; the interception of communications; and the history of intelligence with particular reference to international espionage during the Cold War. He is co-founder and Senior Editor of His latest writings for are available here.

About intelNews
Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

3 Responses to Comment: CIA Deaths a Failure of Intelligence, Not Security

  1. These People[C.I.A.] ARE REAL HEROES!

  2. Brian H says:

    isn’t it ALWAYS a failure of intelligence? Never do we hear about intelligence successes (which happen on a daily basis) but always about intelligence failures…I guess it is just the nature of the way people see things.

  3. intelNews says:

    You are right, we do hear more often about intelligence failures than intelligence successes, although I would argue that it is in the nature of this complex business to have more failures than successes. “More mud than medals”, as they say.[JF]

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