The recent suicide bombing at a Central Intelligence Agency outpost in Afghanistan was the type of incident that was not entirely unexpected. The CIA has been targeting al-Qaida for years, even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, and retaliation was inevitable. But, a combination of lax security and an insatiable hunger for information by the CIA may have contributed to the success of the al-Qaida attack.
Michael Scheuer, who once led the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden, says the deaths of seven CIA officers and contractors and a Jordanian intelligence -officer in the December 30 suicide attack was a tragedy. But, he adds, viewed from a pure, coldly professional viewpoint, the attack was the culmination of a sophisticated al-Qaida human intelligence, or HUMINT, operation that skillfully played on the CIA's thirst for information about al-Qaida's top leaders.
"I do not want to sound callous at all, but it was a wonderful operation," he said. "In terms of a HUMINT [human intelligence] covert operation, it was top-notch. It was as good as anything I have seen in a long time."
According to numerous published accounts, a Jordanian intelligence liaison officer brought Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, also known as a Humam Khalil Mohammad, to the CIA base in Khost to meet with a group of CIA officers. Al-Balawi was reportedly touted as a double agent, a man who once sympathized with al-Qaida, but had turned on his old masters.
It turns out his old loyalties were still intact, which would make him a triple agent, and he detonated the explosives on his body.
Several former CIA officers interviewed, some of whom would only speak anonymously, expressed surprise that al-Balawi was allowed such proximity to so many CIA officers at once.
A former career officer who also ran operations in Afghanistan, Gary Berntsen, says the meeting at the CIA base violated what intelligence officers like to call tradecraft - the rules of the road, so to speak, for handling informants.
"Normally, of course, you would have a case officer who is handling or running a source," he explained. "They would be meeting with that individual privately. And that relationship of course is between that case officer and the source. Occasionally you might have a second person involved and there might be an occasion where you would bring in an expert on a specific topic. But to have so many people together with a source is very unusual and is not standard practice."
Burton Gerber, a 39-year veteran of CIA operations, says it was also a mistake to expose so many intelligence officers to a man whom, according to most accounts, the CIA had not yet met.
"It was not wise from any number of standpoints," he noted. "I mean, aside from if something goes tragically wrong, but also from the standpoint of, how many people do I want to expose to someone? If I am meeting you for the first time, I am not going to bring my whole gang with me, because I do not want you to know them or recognize them. So I think that was probably a tradecraft mistake. But not knowing the full details, I am sitting here, not in a combat zone, I do not know why they did that."
Former operations officers offer several different reasons why tradecraft may have been violated. Berntsen says it may have been because al-Qaida dangled bait too good to resist - the purported whereabouts of al-Qaida's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"If that is in fact true and is in fact the case, then of course a lot of people were eager to hear this, a lot of people were eager to attempt to exploit this data and were hoping to do a big capture," Mr. Berntsen added. "Unfortunately, the failure to search the individual properly, the failure to determine that this individual was being doubled back, run back at us by al-Qaida had tragic consequences."
Mike Scheuer says if al-Balawi was not searched, thus leaving the body explosives undetected, it may have been because he was an agent of Jordanian intelligence, which had vouched for him, and the CIA did not want to offend its sister intelligence organization.
"When you are working together with one of your most trusted intelligence services, which the Jordanians are one of our most trusted, you cannot treat them as some kind of third-class citizen," he said. "You almost have to rely on them to do the job themselves. This man was handled by the Jordanians in conjunction with us. And so you do not frisk a friend."
Jordanian intelligence is reported to have provided crucial information that allowed U.S. forces to target and kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, in 2006.
Running a double or triple agent is a tricky operation, but former CIA officers say al-Qaida does not lack experience in that arena. Gary Berntsen is among those who point out that many al-Qaida operatives served in defense or intelligence agencies of Middle Eastern countries.
"They have individuals, they had a number of individuals in al-Qaida who were former security officials in Egypt, former security officials in different countries that joined them that have had experience with this sort of thing," he explained. "They have learned by doing. They have learned by seeing and experiencing in this environment. And it is a sophisticated thing to do to run a source back at us, but they were patient enough to gain the trust of their handlers."
The CIA has not responded to any of the accounts of the attack and will not confirm or deny any details. But former CIA officers say a thorough review, or damage assessment of the attack and its fallout is certainly underway at the agency's headquarters.