The reaction to the two terrorist attacks during the last week in December is puzzling. One of the attacks, against a CIA outpost in Afghanistan, succeeded; the other, on an airplane landing in Detroit, failed. The Undiebomber was an amateur who was thwarted, rather neatly, by his fellow passengers on the plane. The Afghanistan operation was quite the opposite highly sophisticated and devastating, with vast implications for both the war in Afghanistan and future clandestine CIA operations. And yet the Undiebomber has provoked an avalanche of attention in our twittery media and from Republicans like Dick Cheney who yearn for the return of "enhanced" interrogation techniques. The Afghanistan attack hasn't caused nearly the public fuss, but make no mistake: it has to be a matter of much greater concern to the White House than the Detroit fiasco.
The Afghanistan bombing was not the deadliest in CIA history. That sad honor goes to the 1983 truck bomb that ripped off the face of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon, killing eight members of the Beirut station, among many others. But this suicide bomber, a Jordanian doctor named Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was the CIA's worst ever security breach. In an era when grandmothers are routinely screened at airports, al-Balawi was whisked into Forward Operating Base Chapman, the CIA headquarters for the drone war against al-Qaeda, without so much as a pat-down. He was then ushered into a meeting with 13 CIA operatives and his Jordanian handler.
Both of these facts are crucial. The CIA clearly considered this guy a hot ticket, the path finally to the al-Qaeda leadership. The idea that so many CIA personnel would attend the meeting, and that it would be held on base, is attributable not only to al-Balawi's perceived importance but also to the CIA's bureaucratic caution: in the past, such a meeting would be held off base, with fewer handlers. But everyone wanted to evaluate this guy in the flesh. The fact that al-Balawi wasn't given even a rudimentary security screening speaks to the credibility he had built up over time, feeding valuable information to Jordan's General Intelligence Department, a trusted CIA partner. "This was an extremely sophisticated, well-thought-out operation," a former senior intelligence official told me. "It took years to set up. And quite frankly, we didn't think al-Qaeda had that capability." (Several intelligence sources told me they thought the operation was run out of the al-Qaeda high command Osama bin Laden's headquarters which would make it a departure from the recent trend of decentralized al-Qaeda operations, like Undiebomber's, which was run out of Yemen.)
"This is a real kick in the teeth," says Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, a former CIA analyst. "You have to understand that the CIA considers Afghanistan its most successful arena. This is where the CIA believes it has won two wars, in 1989 and 2001. So this has to challenge a lot of assumptions." As a result, there will be two immediate and contradictory reactions to the attack. The more overt will be a flash of spook machismo. A published comment from a CIA official included this threat: "Last week's attack will be avenged. Some very bad people will eventually have a very bad day."
But there was also a quieter and potentially more profound reaction: Given the skill of this operation, how trustworthy are the other sources the CIA has been using to help target its drone attacks against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan? The standard claim has been that the CIA's human intelligence against al-Qaeda and other threats has improved dramatically in recent years. "In a very perverse way, this attack may be the best testimony of all that human intelligence has improved," said the former official. But spies are, by nature, paranoid, and there will be suspicion now that any new and even some trusted sources are "dangles" that is, double agents working for al-Qaeda. This could cripple future operations. "People tend to get very cautious in a hurry when this sort of thing happens," says Bob Baer, a former covert operator. "Remember, [James] Angleton tore the place apart looking for Soviet moles."
Suddenly, every aspect of the intelligence community's work in Afghanistan is being called into question. According to a report, made public remarkably by Major General Michael Flynn, military intelligence has been "ignorant" about the local power structures in combat areas, imperiling U.S. troops on the ground. And it is likely that the attack on FOB Chapman will spill over into the efforts to train the Afghan army and police which was always an iffy proposition and now faces a massive security question: How many of these trainees are actually reporting to Mullah Omar and bin Laden? After eight years in Afghanistan, is it possible that we're still fighting blind?