Wednesday, October 20, 2010

CIA or CYA? Panetta Reports on Chapman/Khost Attack Findings

IMHO, After reading this news report, they might as well change the middle initial in the name of America's leading intelligence agency...

The Christian Science Monitor reports:
Of course, the Chapman incident also raises questions about the strength of CIA capabilities, even when working on top of a costly military presence. The CIA did not heed Jordanian intelligence warnings about the double agent, Humam Khalil al Balawi, and security measures at Chapman failed.

Yet, no one will be punished for the failures. Speaking to reporters yesterday in Washington, Mr. Panetta said that internal probes found shortcomings “across several agency components,” meaning that “responsibility cannot be assigned to any particular individual or group.”

And, as reported in Wired's Danger Room Blog:
That led some within the CIA to believe Balawi when he said he could get close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy leader of al Qaeda. The Post reports that CIA briefed the White House and U.S. Central Command on the Balawi operation. Panetta’s letter conspicuously does not mention any pressure from the White House that might have contributed to the insufficient vetting, but that’s a possibility nevertheless.

Officials now believe that Balawi was playing the CIA all along, in order to get close enough to kill operatives, as he ultimately did at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. Panetta’s letter conceded that Balawi had “not rejected his terrorist roots.” Earlier this year, al Qaeda released a martyrdom tape Balawi made bragging about his imminent attack.

Panetta vowed to continue “the most aggressive counterterrorism operations in our history,” an effort that has brought CIA drone strikes in Pakistan to an all-time high. And it’s worth mentioning that a persistent knock on the CIA, from the 9/11 Commission and others, holds it to be unwilling to take risks for national security. Aversion to risk was clearly not a problem in the Balawi case — something for agency critics to think about.

The CIA’s new inspector general, David B. Buckley, will review the Balawi report. Whether he’ll have more to say about what went wrong — or if the Congressional intelligence committees will inquire further — remains to be seen.

Update: Much more from the New York Times and the Washington Post, which report that a CIA officer in Jordan failed to pass along warnings from a Jordanian intelligence operative that Balawi was in fact an al-Qaeda double agent. (And that December 30, 2009, contrary to what I initially wrote, wasn’t the worst single-day loss of CIA life in the agency’s history; it’s the worst since the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut.)
You can read Panetta's full statement on the Washingtonian's blog. Here's an excerpt:
...The review is now complete, and I would like to thank those who participated. They did our Agency a great service. It was, to be sure, a difficult task—especially since key insights perished with those we lost. Perfect visibility into all that contributed to the attack is therefore impossible. But based on an exhaustive examination of the available information, we have a firm understanding of what our Agency could have done better. In keeping with past practice, we will provide the Khowst report to the Office of Inspector General.

In highly sensitive, complex counterterrorism operations, our officers must often deal with dangerous people in situations involving a high degree of ambiguity and risk. The task force noted that the Khowst assailant fit the description of someone who could offer us access to some of our most vicious enemies. He had already provided information that was independently verified. The decision to meet him at the Khowst base—with the objective of gaining additional intelligence on high priority terrorist targets—was the product of consultations between Headquarters and the field. He had confirmed access within extremist circles, making a covert relationship with him—if he was acting in good faith—potentially very productive. But he had not rejected his terrorist roots. He was, in fact, a brutal murderer.

Mitigating the risk inherent in intelligence operations, especially the most sensitive ones, is essential to success. In this case, the task force determined that the Khowst assailant was not fully vetted and that sufficient security precautions were not taken. These missteps occurred because of shortcomings across several Agency components in areas including communications, documentation, and management oversight. Coupled with a powerful drive to disrupt al-Qa’ida, these factors contributed to the tragedy at Khowst. Each played an important role; none was more important than the others. Based on the findings of the task force and the independent review, responsibility cannot be assigned to any particular individual or group. Rather, it was the intense determination to accomplish the mission that influenced the judgments that were made.

There are no guarantees in the dangerous work of counterterrorism, but the task force identified six key areas that deserve greater focus as we carry out that vital mission. We will:

Enforce greater discipline in communications, ensuring that key guidance, operational facts, and judgments are conveyed and clearly flagged in formal channels.

Strengthen our attention to counterintelligence concerns while maintaining a wartime footing.

Apply the skills and experience of senior officers more effectively in sensitive cases.

Require greater standardization of security procedures.

More carefully manage information sharing with other intelligence services.

Maintain our high operational tempo against terrorist targets, even as we make adjustments to how we conduct our essential mission...

...We’ve now taken a hard look at what happened and what needed to be done after the tragedy at Khowst. While we cannot eliminate all of the risks involved in fighting a war, we can and will do a better job of protecting our officers. Drawing on the work of the task force and its insights, it’s time to move forward. Nothing in the report can relieve the pain of losing our seven fallen colleagues. By putting their lives on the line to pursue our nation’s terrorist enemies, they taught us what bravery is all about. It is that legacy that we will always remember in our hearts.

Leon E. Panetta
Bottom line, as Mark Twain wrote of the official inquiry into the explosion of the steamboat Amaranth in The Gilded Age: "A jury of inquest was impaneled, and after due deliberation and inquiry they returned the inevitable American verdict which has been so familiar to our ears all the days of our lives—'NOBODY TO BLAME.'"