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CIA inquiry cites failures in Afghan bombing that killed agents

The CIA ignored warnings that a potential Jordanian asset might be an Al Qaeda double agent, then failed to search him as he entered a high-security base in Afghanistan where he detonated a suicide bomb that killed seven agency personnel in December, an internal investigation has revealed.

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta said the investigation found widespread security and communication breakdowns that led to the devastating attack on the remote agency base in Afghanistan’s eastern Khowst province, which killed two contractors and five employees, including the base chief, who was one of the agency’s foremost experts on Al Qaeda. Six other CIA officers were wounded.

Critics called the failures revealed by the investigation violations of basic intelligence tradecraft, but Panetta said no one would be fired or disciplined.

Panetta disclosed for the first time Tuesday that 25 days before the attack, a Jordanian intelligence officer had expressed concerns to his CIA counterpart in Jordan that the future bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal Balawi, could be a double agent. But the CIA officer didn’t pass on those concerns to CIA operatives in Afghanistan or to Washington supervisors closely monitoring the operation.

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Asked why that person wasn’t disciplined, Panetta said the suspicions about Balawi weren’t clear enough and that the officer’s decision to not pass them on was reasonable, if wrong.

Panetta said officers, many lacking experience in war zones, took risks they shouldn’t have in their zeal to recruit Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who had convinced agency personnel that he could lead them to Al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman Zawahiri. Balawi had been vetted by a trusted Jordanian intelligence operative, and the CIA didn’t want him searched by the base’s Afghan guards, a Panetta aide said.

The investigation found a cascade of other failures.

For example, Panetta said, so many elements of the CIA were involved in the mission to recruit Balawi that no one seemed to be in charge. And elements of the team used e-mail and instant-message software to communicate instead of official cables, meaning key information wasn’t shared with everyone who needed to know.

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Also, Balawi was greeted by a group of Americans instead of one or two, “to make him feel welcome,” Panetta told a small gathering of reporters at CIA headquarters in Virginia. That decision increased the death count. Security officers were about to search him when he set off the bomb, Panetta said.

“It would be easier to go after one person for causing this so everybody could go back to business as usual,” Panetta said. “This is a case where there are some systemic failures where all of us have responsibility, and all of us need to fix it.”

A retired CIA officer with long experience in difficult parts of the world criticized that approach, saying the agency is failing to hold managers accountable for serious errors.

“These are not just mistakes, they are inexcusable. It’s gross negligence,” said Charles Faddis, a former case officer who spent years overseas, including a stint during the Iraq war.

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Faddis said he had conducted hundreds of meetings with potential agents in hostile environments, and that it would have been unthinkable not to search each one and unconscionable to then bring them in proximity to a group of CIA personnel.

“He could have been searched in the vehicle,” Faddis said. “That is an absolutely routine security measure. You don’t dispense with good tradecraft because you’re pursuing a high-profile case.”

A CIA task force made 23 recommendations in the wake of the review, all of which Panetta accepted. He also asked two outsiders, former senior diplomat Thomas R. Pickering and former CIA official Charles Allen, to review the findings.

“My own feeling was that it was a very hard-nosed and straightforward examination,” Pickering said in an interview. He said he believed the bombing was a sufficient shock to the CIA to force badly needed change.

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Some of the recommendations are already being implemented. For example, everyone who enters a CIA base is now searched.

Others include the establishment of a “war zone board” to review staffing, training and security in hostile environments. The chief of the Khowst base, an Al Qaeda expert and mother of three, did not have sufficient training and experience in combat areas, Panetta said.

And a team of counterintelligence experts — people whose job is to make sure the CIA isn’t being duped or spied on — will vet informants recruited in counterterrorism operations.

The acknowledgement of mistakes marked a shift from Panetta’s stance in the aftermath of the attack, when he argued that criticism of security procedures or other tactics by the CIA in the attack was unfair.

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Panetta said Tuesday that he stood by that sentiment, even as he acknowledged the series of breakdowns.

“This is standard agency BS,” said Faddis, who wrote a 2009 book in which he called for replacing the CIA with a more nimble spy organization. “The first line was, nothing went wrong. Then when that became untenable, defensive position two is, some things went wrong but they were reasonable decisions, and we’ll learn some lessons. What that means is, so many of us are in this boat that we can’t hang one of us and not hang us all.”

The director, who recently visited Khowst and placed a plaque at the bomb site, said the CIA has killed some of those who masterminded the attack. “We have also gone after the others who were involved in the planning of this and have taken many of them out too,” he said, without mentioning the mode of attack — missiles from unmanned aerial drones — a program the U.S. government does not officially acknowledge.

ken.dilanian@latimes.com


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