How The CIA Got Duped: 'The Triple Agent'

In December 2009, a Jordanian doctor was given a warm welcome at a secret CIA base in eastern Afghanistan. His American handlers believed him to be a double agent, working on their behalf to penetrate the inner workings of al-Qaida. In fact, he was a triple agent, working for al-Qaida, and he used his special access to detonate a suicide bomb and kill seven CIA officers and several of their associates. Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick about his new book on the affair, The Triple Agent.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

If you follow the spy world you probably know the term double agent. What we have next is the story of a triple agent, a man who tricked the CIA into believing he worked for them when all along he was working for al-Qaida. It's the story of Humam al-Balawi. He killed seven CIA employees on December 30th, 2009 when he blew himself up at a secret CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan.

Joby Warrick writes about Balawi in his new book "The Triple Agent."

Hi, Joby.

Mr. JOBY WARRICK (Author, "The Triple Agent"): Hi, it's nice to be back.

KELLY: Nice to see you. So paint us a picture of that scene, that day, December 30th, 2009 when Balawi arrived at the secret CIA base and got out of his car.

Mr. WARRICK: First of all, the anticipation on the CIA side was so intense. This special informant, Balawi, had been sending just electrifying reports from his own work as a double agent, they thought, inside al-Qaida. He was getting them close to a very important strike, so when he was arriving at Khost that day there was a large number of the CIA officers who are standing by for this. They had even baked him a birthday cake because he had just had a birthday a couple of days before.

KELLY: Baked him a birthday cake.

Mr. WARRICK: Baked him a birthday cake because they wanted to make him feel welcome. And the extraordinary thing looking back was that everyone that day was obsessed with keeping this guy safe, so nobody would be able to discover his secret identity. And all along he was, of course, leading them into a deadly trap.

KELLY: I remember reporting the story here at NPR or when the news was first breaking. And the details were so thin, we could not figure out how the suicide bomber had managed to make it through all the layers of CIA security and into the secret base.

What has emerged and what you write about is that he was invited in. They were trying to make him feel utterly welcome because they thought he could leave them, perhaps, to al-Qaida's number two.

Mr. WARRICK: Yeah, it was extraordinary for so many reasons. First of all, you don't hear much about these CIA bases. They operate in complete secrecy and nothing as horrible as this ever happens at a CIA base, because security is that good. For this man to get through multiple layers of security, with a big bomb strapped to his chest, was just an amazing thing.

And as the details began to emerge it was more and more mystifying. And everything began to point back to the identity of the man himself, and how he had been so clever that he was able to get past the most impressive, most sophisticated intelligence operation in the world.

KELLY: Before we go any further, explain the title of your book, "The Triple Agent."

Mr. WARRICK: There are all kinds of kinds of informants in the intelligence world. Some are the low-level people; they just get paid a few hundred bucks to, you know, give information to essentially just corner spies. And there are others who are informants who are trained and then placed inside another country, to try to infiltrate the enemy. They'd be given a cover story and lots of money, and there's just a process that unfolds over many years sometimes.

This was the case unlike any of those. This is a man who had true allegiances to al-Qaida before all this happened. He was talking through his blog and through email to members of the Taliban and al-Qaida. And when he was arrested by the Jordanians because of his activity, and then supposedly flipped, he then became a double agent for the CIA. They wanted him inside al-Qaida and he appeared to succeed in doing that. All along, his allegiances were toward al-Qaida. So he was in that sense the triple agent.

KELLY: Has the CIA changed its protocol in terms of dealing with this type of situation to avoid being penetrated again by a double or a triple agent?

Mr. WARRICK: Yes. There's been no formal or public inquiry, but the CIA has done its own investigation. And it was pretty hard on itself in the sense that this wasn't just a one-time thing. There were systemic problems that took place. This art or science of counterintelligence, the idea that you have to look at informants and study their motivation and their behavior, and watch them carefully over many months or years before you trust them - that was, you know, shoved aside during Iraq and during Afghanistan when the CIA was stretched so thin.

KELLY: Joby Warrick, have you gone back and talked to people who you interviewed for this book in the wake of the death of Osama bin Laden? I mean I guess I'm wondering whether there is a sense, that as awful as a tragedy was in Khost, Afghanistan for the CIA, that the death of their colleagues has somehow been avenged. They finally got the big guy that all of this effort was headed toward.

Mr. WARRICK: The director of the CIA at the time was Leon Panetta. And when he left a few weeks ago, to go to the Defense Department to be the new Defense secretary, he had a communal meeting with all his officers. And two main themes were discussed. One was Khost and the horrible tragedy that took place on that day. And the other was the takedown of bin Laden. And these are sort of bookends.

This was sort of the worst that could possibly happen for the CIA - the death of all these officers - and at the same time, there was this almost catharsis in the death of Osama bin Laden; something that many of these officers who were killed had worked on. They had all been part of this search for Osama bin Laden that had been unsuccessful for so long. And here, finally, they were able to get the guy.

KELLY: Were there any lessons learnt from the episode in Khost that helped them a year and some months later, finally catch bin Laden? I mean was this an episode that, awful as it was, served some purpose?

Mr. WARRICK: I think one thing that it did was it made the CIA actually more aggressive and more determined, because this was not something that anybody expected to happen. But it angered a lot of people. And so after the bombing, you see this flurry of drone activity, you know, at a tempo and that's just never been equaled before or since. And also, a more intense effort to follow these many threads of evidence to where bin Laden might be. And one of them turned out to be successful; finding this courier going back and forth to Abbottabad, where bin Laden was hiding out. And this turned out to be the ultimate piece of evidence that led to his death.

KELLY: One thing I wanted to ask you about and that is your sources for a tale like this. How do you piece together a reliable account of what happened when many of the people who have first-hand knowledge would be dead? And many of the others would still be working at the agency and have real limitations on what they're able to say to you.

Mr. WARRICK: Yeah, I've said this process is like putting together a puzzle in the dark because of the incredible secrecy, everything about the base with secret, the agent was certainly secret. And, as I've said, there's been no public inquiry. And yet, at the same time, there are so many people that know little bits of this: People in Jordan at their intelligence community; family members; the CIA and its former and current officers who began to relay bits of information. And then it was a matter of assembling at all together.

And finally, we have the writings of Balawi himself who was quite prolific before this all took place. And he actually also wrote many articles and essays and made many videotapes just before his death to explain what happened and why he did it, and who his associates were. And it was an amazing record. And I was able to put together a tale that just showed, from beginning to end, how this operation took place.

KELLY: Joby Warrick, thanks very much.

Mr. WARRICK: I enjoyed this. Thank you.

KELLY: Joby Warrick covers national security for The Washington Post. His new book is titled "The Triple Agent."

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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