Spies Hit Back at Critics of Alleged Security Lapses in Afghan Bombing Incident

Senior intelligence officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, are pushing back against former spies and other critics who have accused the agency of security lapses and abandoning traditional espionage "tradecraft" by allowing a Jordanian informant who turned out to be a suicide bomber inside a secret agency base in remote eastern Afghanistan.

"It's beneath contempt to denigrate the dead, yet that's what people do when they claim─without knowing the facts─that the bombing was the product of poor tradecraft. The critics weren't there. The individuals with the best, firsthand knowledge of exactly what transpired are either dead or wounded," a U.S. intelligence official told Declassified.

The official added that the group of CIA officers and security personnel who turned out to greet double agent Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi "was at a distance from the bomber when he touched off his explosives. He was about to be searched and he knew it. Had he been able to get closer─and he couldn't─he would have done even more damage."

In a Washington Post op-ed piece Saturday, CIA chief Panetta also lashed out, likening critics of the CIA officers' actions to people who would suggest that "Marines who die in a fire-fight brought it upon themselves because they have poor war-fighting skills."

Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who also was well-known in the jihadist world as a pseudonymous blogger on a militant Web site, killed seven CIA officers and contractors in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30 when he blew himself up after he was driven into a secret CIA outpost called Forward Operating Base Chapman. Balawi touched off his suicide bomb after three security officers moved toward him intending to conduct a body search. Balawi was asked to remove his hand from his pocket, but instead touched off a suicide bomb. Two of the dead were security officers working at the CIA base as employees of Xe Services, the controversial private military contractor formerly known as Blackwater.

Many details of how Balawi became a double agent and what the CIA hoped to get out of him are still murky. Posthumous video excerpts of Balawi released Saturday show him stating that all jihadists must avenge the death of Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed by a U.S. missile last August.

Two U.S. intelligence officials said Balawi and and his Jordanian intelligence case officer, Ali bin Zaid, were invited onto Forward Operating Base Chapman because Balawi had suggested to his handlers that he might be able to deliver information on the location of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's second in command. The meeting was so important that intelligence officials had informed the White House about it in advance.

As NEWSWEEK reports in its forthcoming print edition, after the attack, the CIA faced heavy criticism from former and retired spies for alleged security lapses that enabled the bomber to kill so many CIA personnel at a stroke. At the CIA training facility known as "The Farm" in Virginia, one of the standard courses is called "High Threat Management." All aspiring case officers spend the three-week course 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.' " There are very rigorous protocols for such meetings, says another former agent who once taught the course: all informants should be searched carefully, the location of the meeting 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," Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who spent years tracking terrorists in the Mideast told NEWSWEEK. "The one thing you never do is meet an informant with a committee."

But intelligence officials say that procedures created for the relatively well-ordered spy battles of the Cold War don't necessarily work on the front lines of the war on terror in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. The U.S. intelligence official explained: "The source had a track record. The CIA was able to verify independently some of his information, which was passed through another service. But there were still questions, as you would expect, about access and reliability. At some point, especially with a case that appeared to have such real promise, you want to go face-to-face. It's one thing to read what someone's supplied, or hear about them. The last thing you give an asset is trust, and that didn't happen here. The guy was about to be searched when he touched off his bomb. The security officers were right next to him, just as they should have been. The others who were killed or wounded were about 50 feet away. The idea that he was treated like a movie star surrounded by adoring fans is just garbage. "

The official added that Balawi's credentials as a radical blogger would have enhanced his credibility among jihadists once he started cooperating with authorities: "The kind of people who can penetrate Al Qaeda are jihadis themselves. They're the ones you need, even if you can't trust them. That's how it works in the real world. The next Mother Theresa won't get in. You'd want a radical blogger with demonstrated entrée to high-level extremists."