Anatomy of a Double-Cross

By Hosenball, Sami Yousafzai Mark; Demir, Adem | Newsweek, January 18, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Anatomy of a Double-Cross

Hosenball, Sami Yousafzai Mark, Demir, Adem, Newsweek

How a Jordanian jihadist turned CIA operative--and back again.

At the CIA training facility in Virginia known as "The Farm," one of the standard courses is called "High Threat Meetings." All aspiring case officers spend the three-week class learning how to arrange a get-together with potentially dangerous informants. When meeting with such agents, "security is everything," recalls one graduate. "I remember being told very forcefully, 'It doesn't matter what you might get from an informant if you wind up dead.'a" There are very rigorous protocols for such meetings, says another former agent who once taught the course: all informants should be searched carefully, the rendezvous location should be staked out ahead of time, and when the mole arrives, only one or two CIA officers should be present. "The protocol is for a case officer to meet an informant one-on-one, or maybe -two--always, always, always," adds Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who spent years tracking terrorists in the Mideast. "The one thing you never do is meet an informant with a committee."

A committee of at least nine CIA officers and contractors was on hand to meet Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi at CIA Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30. Why the operatives apparently broke a fundamental rule of CIA -trade-craft is unclear. Perhaps they were giddy with anticipation. Balawi had suggested he might be able to deliver something that every CIA officer desperately wants in order to protect the United States and advance their careers: the location of Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The meeting was considered so important that intelligence officials had informed the White House about it in advance, according to a U.S. counterterrorism officer briefed on the matter. According to two current U.S. intelligence officials, who would not be named discussing sensitive information, security officers were preparing to frisk Balawi after he arrived inside the base. As Balawi stepped from the vehicle, he had a hand in his pocket, according to this account. Someone asked him to remove it, and that's when the bomb exploded, killing five CIA operatives and two contractors, and wounding others.

This has been a season for intelligence fiascoes. Only days before the Balawi bombing, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab managed to buy an airline ticket to the United States with cash, conceal a bomb in his underwear, and nearly blow up Northwest Flight 253 as it was approaching Detroit on Christmas Day. In that case, many key bits of intelligence were in hand--including a warning by Abdulmutallab's father that his son had come under the influence of extremists in Yemen--but U.S. intel agencies were unable to connect the dots in time. Within the same week, the senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, coauthored a refreshingly candid and very public report that said, among other things, that the "U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy" in Afghanistan. (Among his views: there's too much emphasis on intel for killing bad guys, and not nearly enough on information to help soldiers understand what's really going on in the society.)

Given all the tens of billions of dollars the United States spends on intelligence activities every year, and the high--profile reforms that were enacted after 9/11, a lot of people--including President Obama--were questioning why we can't do better at spying on enemies and analyzing threats.

The Balawi case raises a further question: how good is Al Qaeda at infiltrating our national-security agencies? That's been a fear in intelligence circles at least since 2003, when two Arabic translators working at Guantanamo were arrested on suspicion of terrorist sympathies. (One linguist pleaded guilty to minor charges of insubordination and mishandling secret information; charges against the other were all dropped.

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