An informant allegedly providing the CIA with information on al-Qaida and other terrorist networks turns out to be a double agent loyal to the very people on whom he's informing. Taking advantage of his access to a secret CIA base in Afghanistan, the man detonates explosives hidden under his clothing and kills seven Americans, his Jordanian "handler" and himself.
Last week's deadly attack in Khost, Afghanistan, resulted from the failure of what professionals call "counterintelligence," the work of keeping your enemy from penetrating your own defenses. Counterintelligence is not only about spying on your enemy. It means getting information about your enemy's efforts to spy on you.
During the Cold War, counterintelligence was largely a spy-versus-spy game, played between U.S. and Soviet intelligence agencies, each determined to trick and outwit the other. When the enemy is a terrorist organization, the counterintelligence challenge is different but no less important.
To track terrorists, intelligence officials need good informants — agents who can report secretly on what al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations are doing. The counterintelligence task is to make sure informants aren't secretly working for the enemy.
Michael Hurley, a former CIA officer who pursued al-Qaida in Afghanistan, says an intelligence officer working with informants — or potential informants — must first be convinced that the informants are trustworthy by asking a series of questions.
"They will say, 'I went to this district or province in Pakistan or Afghanistan and I saw this terrorist there. This is someone you should be interested in.' Well," says Hurley, "the first question [for the intelligence official] to ask is, 'Were they really there? Were they really standing outside the house where they supposedly saw this person? Does any of that make sense? Is it logical?' "
Many more questions might follow: Can the agent's information be verified? Would it really damage the people on whom he is informing? Does the agent really have the access he claims to have?
Within the intelligence profession, counterintelligence is a specialty. But Hurley says all field officers need counterintelligence proficiency.
"When an officer overseas is meeting an informant," Hurley says, "it's his or her eyes and ears making the initial judgment about the reliability of this person. And what is seen back in Washington will be based on that officer's judgment."
A good counterintelligence investigation is painstaking work, and attention to details is important. Because it's defensive rather than offensive, the reward may not be immediate.
"It's not sexy," says Burton Gerber, a 40-year CIA veteran and the co-editor of a new book, Vaults, Mirrors, and Masks: Rediscovering U.S. Counterintelligence. "And the people who are really good at it are usually people who come in and say, 'Hey, boss, you may want to look at this again.' And how many of us like our subordinates to say, 'Hey, boss, you may be jumping off the cliff when you don't want to'?"
Good counterintelligence does not take you closer to your target; it stops your target from getting closer to you. But with Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri still on the loose more than eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, intelligence agencies are under great pressure to find them. Under the circumstances, intelligence officers may be tempted to skip some of the necessary counterintelligence work.
"People want to produce, and cutting corners is a way to do it," says Gerber. "And the more pressure there is in terms of, 'Bring me the head of Osama bin Laden,' [the more] people begin doing things fast instead of well."
Intelligence officials say the suicide bomber who attacked the CIA base in Afghanistan had offered information on Zawahiri. The informant had been working for the Jordanian intelligence service, whose agents reportedly vouched for his reliability. But one of the cardinal counterintelligence rules is to remember that the other side will always be going after your agents.
"You never own them," says one former senior intelligence official. "You only rent them."
Even if you recruit the informants yourself, says Gerber, you can never be entirely sure of their reliability. "You are still conscious of the fact that something could have happened to that source since the last time you saw him or her. And, therefore, every source needs to be revalidated with every meeting."
Gerber's own experience was as a CIA station chief in three countries during the Cold War. The counterintelligence principles he identifies apply as well to the modern era, when U.S. intelligence officials are going after terrorists rather than communists. But in a counterterrorism context, the counterintelligence challenge is unique.
"If you asked the CIA, they would be less concerned about al-Qaida penetrating our headquarters," says Hurley, who served as chief counsel to the 9/11 Commission following his CIA career. "But we still need to be concerned about them running agents against us. Their goal would be to learn about our security practices, perhaps in order to target us."
Hurley contrasts that objective with Soviet counterintelligence goals. "The [Soviet] mission was to get information and learn about our capabilities, what we were doing against them and so on," he says. "Whereas, in this case [with terrorist networks], it's often just to get people with very bad and lethal intent in close to our personnel so they can kill them."
That was clearly the case with last week's suicide bomber. Presumably he could have taken advantage of his access to U.S. and Jordanian handlers to find out more about U.S. counterterrorism operations. Instead, he just blew them — and himself — up, as soon as he had the opportunity.