Former CIA operative Robert Baer writes:
On January 10, 2010, CIA director Leon Panetta wrote a Washington Post op-ed in which he disputed that poor tradecraft was a factor in the Khost tragedy [after a Jordanian doctor named Humam Khalil Abu-Malal al-Balawi blew himself up, in one of the deadliest attacks in the CIA’s history]. Panetta is wrong.
An old operative I used to work with in Beirut said he would have picked up Balawi himself and debriefed him in his car, arguing that any agent worth his salt would never expose the identity of a valued asset to a foreigner like the Afghan driver. I pointed out that if he’d been there and done it that way, he’d probably be dead now. “It’s better than what happened,” he said.
One thing that should have raised doubts about Balawi was that he had yet to deliver any truly damaging intelligence on Al Qaeda, such as the location of Zawahiri or the plans for the Northwest bomb plot. Balawi provided just enough information to keep us on the hook, but never enough to really hurt his true comrades. And how was it that Balawi got Al Qaeda members to pose for pictures? This should have been another sign. These guys don’t like their pictures taken. So there were a few clear reasons not to trust Balawi, or at least to deal with him with extreme caution.
But the most inexplicable error was to have met Balawi by committee. Informants should always be met one-on-one. Always.
The fact is that Kathy [the Khost CIA base chief], no matter how courageous and determined, was in over her head. This does not mean she was responsible for what happened. She was set up to fail. The battlefield was tilted in Al Qaeda’s favor long ago—by John Deutch and his reforms, by the directors who followed him, by the decision to drop the paramilitary course from the mandatory curriculum (which would have made Kathy a lot more wary of explosives), and by two endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have worn the CIA down to a nub. Had Kathy spent more time in the field, more time running informants, maybe even been stung by one or two bad doubles, the meeting in Khost probably would have been handled differently—and at the very least there would have been one dead rather than eight.
If we take Khost as a metaphor for what has happened to the CIA, the deprofessionalization of spying, it’s tempting to consider that the agency’s time has passed. “Khost was an indictment of an utterly failed system,” a former senior CIA officer told me. “It’s time to close Langley.”
Baer isn’t prepared to go that far — he still hankers for the “professionalism” of a bigone era. What he fails to note is that at the core of that lost world of espionage was a contest between spies and that on neither side did those past masters of their tradecraft have any desire to die for their cause.
Funny, some of the people* at “Mother Jones” magazine thought the CIA should have been shut down in 2001 because September 11th happened; they thought the agency was too mired in Cold War thinking and not oriented enough toward Central Asia and the Middle East. You are right that the spooks never wanted to die in the old days but they did play at being commandos in Cuba and Vietnam, and they were playing police inspector in Khost when the Jordanian blew himself up.
* I think it was Ken Silverstein and a six-page article