WASHINGTON (AP) — The deaths of seven CIA employees in Afghanistan probably will not be the last. The U.S. isn’t pulling back on covert operations to hunt terrorists there and in Pakistan and will go on taking chances on human tipsters to help.
In fact, the United States struck back at militant targets in Pakistan on Wednesday with explosives apparently launched from an airborne drone — the first responses since the bombing that killed several top CIA operatives at a secretive eastern Afghan base reportedly used as a key outpost in the effort to identify and target terror leaders.
The attack was a lethal message that the Obama administration views its airstrikes as too effective to abandon, even though they are unpopular with civilians and the U.S.-backed governments in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The apparent strikes killed at least 12 people in an area of Pakistan’s volatile northwest teeming with militants suspected of directing the suicide attack last week across the border in Afghanistan.
The U.S. deaths were a reminder that while the use of drones may lessen the risk to American pilots, the CIA-run operation has its own human Achilles’ heel: the intelligence agents who practice old-fashioned spycraft to pinpoint the targets.
The attack came as a a severe blow to the expertise and talent pool of the CIA in a little-understood country where its spies are now most at risk.
Charles Faddis, a former agency case officer, said it was a major strike to agency operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“CIA is a small outfit,” said Faddis, who recently published “Beyond Repair,” a scathing assessment of the agency. “You don’t lose this many people in one strike and not feel it acutely.”
The bomber, a Jordanian doctor identified as Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was apparently a double agent — perhaps even a triple-agent — who had been considered a key asset. Al-Balawi was invited inside the outpost facility bearing a promise of information about al-Qaida’s second in command, presumed to be hiding in Pakistan.
A federal law enforcement official said Tuesday that the bomber entered the base by car and detonated a powerful explosive just outside the base’s gym where CIA operatives and others had gathered. It was unclear whether the explosives were hidden in a suicide vest or belt, but they set off a “significant blast,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the investigation.
A small team of FBI agents, including bomb and evidence technicians, flew to the remote Afghan base soon after the blast, the official said. The team, which is working closely with the CIA, has since returned and is still trying to identify the components of the explosives and whether they included shrapnel.
Several current and former intelligence and defense officials said the deaths of the CIA agents and the others were a foreseeable cost of doing business with unsavory people in dangerous places.
“The attacks confirm what has been the CIA’s view all along: that undertaking intelligence operations requires taking risks, and while those risks can be diminished by excellent tradecraft, hard work, and smart people, they can never be eliminated,” said former CIA officer Steven Cash.
The CIA is taking heat from some of its own former employees, however, for apparently taking unnecessary risks in this case by failing to search the bomber before he penetrated the base’s security perimeter. They also raised questions about why more than a dozen U.S. personnel were close by when al-Balawai detonated explosives strapped to his body.
Two CIA operatives might have been plenty, former CIA officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss what they called tradecraft, or agency procedures.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute Saban Center and a former CIA officer, said the agency would now likely be scrubbing its other sources in the region to ensure they are legitimate.
“If the other side was running this one person against us, how confident are we of everyone else?” Riedel said. “You have to take a period to assess where you are.”
However, Riedel said the CIA is aware, especially after the Dec. 25 attempted bombing of an airliner in Detroit, that it doesn’t have the luxury of time.
Riedel said the bait that al-Balawi was offering — the location of al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri, was too tempting to resist.
“We haven’t had real location on either him or bin Laden in years,” he said.
Bad as the suicide attack was, several current and former intelligence officials said the CIA has a deep bench of operatives with experience in Afghanistan, after eight years of active warfare and the Cold War decades in which Afghanistan was considered strategic.
There are no immediate plans to close the once-secret military base where the bomber killed the CIA station chief and wounded the Kabul deputy station chief, and the CIA is expected to quickly rebuild its operations there.
A U.S. intelligence official said the agency has increased the size and scope of its operations in Afghanistan and is continuing its counterterrorism mission as before.
Military officials said there may be additional security precautions for people entering the kind of forward operating base that houses the CIA operation. But the CIA controls many of the decisions about whom to meet and where, and how thoroughly to search a presumed informant.
Informants are sometimes invited to secure bases because of the security risk involved in sending undercover employees or other operatives outside the base, current and former intelligence and military officials said.
NATO’s top intelligence officer has ordered significant changes in the way information is collected and shared in Afghanistan, saying that without reform the U.S. intelligence community will continue to be only “marginally relevant” to the counterinsurgency mission.
In a stinging assessment of the U.S. intelligence effort after eight years of war, U.S. Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn directed intelligence workers to focus less on the enemy and more on civilian life.
Field agents are not providing the kind of intelligence that analysts need to respond to inquiries from President Barack Obama and the top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
“These analysts are starved for information from the field — so starved, in fact, that many say their jobs feel more like fortune telling than serious detective work,” said the report released this week.
The report was compiled before the suicide attack at Forward Operating Base Chapman in eastern Afghanistan. The CIA is not mentioned in Flynn’s report, which focuses more on the thousands of uniformed and civilian intelligence personnel serving with the Defense Department and joint interagency operations in the country.
Intelligence officials said al-Balawi had provided a stream of useful information in what may have been an artful ruse to build trust with his Jordanian and U.S. contacts.
AP National Security Writer Anne Gearan contributed from Washington.