spies, national security, espionage, counterterrorism, u.s. foreign policy, intelligence operations, CIA, special forces, counterterrorism, terrorism

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

CIA's Fatal Welcome Mat for Triple Agent Recounted

Perhaps the most riveting passage in the second installment of Joby Warrick’s new book on the tragic deaths of seven CIA personnel in Afghanistan 18 months ago is his description of the triple agent’s last 100 yards into the base at Khost.

The ease with which Humam al-Balawi persuaded the CIA to let him onto the base without being patted down has been much remarked upon -- and criticized -- by veteran operatives who blamed CIA management for letting someone with no field experience run the operation.

“Traditionally, the CIA's station chiefs, or top agency officer in a country, and its base chiefs, deployed in outlying offices, were veteran case officers, or seasoned spy handlers,” I wrote in my Washington Post column about four months after the fatalities. 

“But under a series of CIA directors starting in the mid-1990s, that began to change. Career intelligence analysts, like John O. Brennan, now President Obama's deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism, who was station chief in Saudi Arabia from 1996 to 1999, were increasingly deployed to field positions.”

And so it was that CIA base chief Jessica Matthews, apparently discarding misgivings by more veteran operatives, planned to welcome Balawi with big smiles and a cake.  She assembled her team in the gravel yard in front their building as the car carrying the treacherous agent approached on Dec. 30, 2009.

Balawi, wearing a suicide vest packed with military-grade, C-4 explosives and metal shrapnel, had cruised through the camp gate without so much as an ID check.

“There was an opening in a wall, and Arghawan [the Afghan driver] steered the car through a second open checkpoint and then turned left through a third,” Warrick writes.

“Balawi was now inside a fortified compound with walls of stacked barriers 10 feet high and topped with razor wire. On the side of the compound opposite the gate were five newly constructed buildings with metal roofs and a few smaller ones. The next-to-last building in the row had a wide awning. Balawi could see a large cluster of people scattered in front of it, a welcome party that included CIA officers and security contractors."

As the car drew to a stop, Balawi was zoned in on his mission, “staring blankly at the group when the car door opened.”

He “squeezed the door handle on the opposite side and climbed out of the car, swinging his injured leg onto the gravel lot, and then the good one. Painfully he pulled himself erect, leaning on his metal crutch for support…

“He began walking in a slow-motion hobble as his right hand felt for the detonator.”

He began mouthing, “La ilaha illa Allah!” -- There is no god but God -- as he stuttered forward.

“Men were shouting loudly, yelling about his hand, but still Balawi walked. He could hear his own voice growing more distinct.
“La ilaha illa Allah!”

Guns were drawn.

“Balawi’s path was now blocked. He looked up to see that he was surrounded on two sides by men with guns drawn…” Warrick writes.

“Balawi turned slightly, finger locked on the detonator, and looked across the top of the car. The smiles had vanished…"

He "closed his eyes. His finger made the slightest twitch.”

A flash--and a boom that could be heard miles away--took tem all out.

Warrick, who shared in a Pulitzer Prize in 1996, will be reading from Triple Agent at Washington, D.C.’s Politics & Prose Bookstore on Thursday, July 30.