Thursday, Jun. 23rd 2011

The Asset Who Hunted the CIA – HUMINT Lessons

On December 20, 2009, seven CIA personnel died in a massive explosion at an outpost at Khost, Afghanistan. Newsweek has a detailed account entitled The Triple Agent.

While the episode was a tragedy, the facts uncovered in the Newsweek article have several lessons for intelligence officers:

  • Even experienced, well trained intelligence officers can be tempted to avoid normal protocols when the asset offers tantalizing opportunities.  In this case, a Jordanian physician recruited by the Mukhabarat, Jordan’s intelligence service, offered the opportunity to kill or capture Ayman al-Zawahiri, who at the time was Al Qaeda’s number two official.
  • No CIA officer had ever met the asset, Humam al-Balawi, a 32-year-old doctor who had come to the attention of the Mukhabarat for posting anti-Western comments on the Internet.
  • Humam al-Balawi suddenly gained access to Al Qaeda’s inner sanctum and proved his bona fides by emailing a short video clip that showed al-Balawi with Ayman al-Zawahiri.
  • The counterintelligence efforts of terrorist groups matches that of foreign powers. Al Qaeda either allowed al-Balawi to examine Zawahiri or gave him detailed information about his medical condition that matched what the CIA knew.
  • Newsweek reports that Balawi resisted efforts for personal meetings and only after much back-and-forth communications with the Jordanian case officer handling him, agreed to cross over from Pakistan, where he was operating, to Afghanistan. This indicates to me that al Qaeda realized that exposing Balawi to in-depth interrogation may cause the CIA to detect the double agent (I think Balawi was more properly termed a double agent). For that reason, it appears al Qaeda built up interest as high as possible in order to get attention and armed Balawi with a vest bomb on the first meeting.
  • Newsweek notes the intense pressure from higher-ups (unnamed in the story) that overruled the recommendations of the CIA handler posted in Jordan who came to Khost for the meet and the Khost CIA chief of base, an al Qaeda expert. Both counseled a slower, more deliberate approach.
  • Terrorists are a danger to intelligence officers. The largest loss of life by CIA personnel has come from this al Qaeda attack and the loss of seven CIA officers in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983 (which is described in my next book, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, set for publication in early 2012.)

How long will these lessons be remembered? More importantly, will they be taken to heart by the political masters who often create the pressure that drives bad decisions?

The final and most important lesson: the asset you are recruiting or handling is just that–an asset–not your friend, not your next promotion, and never, never to be fully trusted.

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