What The Khost Bombing Says About The CIA

Read Robert Baer's Article For GQ, "A Dagger To The CIA"

Last December, an al-Qaida double agent walked on to the U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan and blew himself up, killing seven CIA officers. Former CIA operative Robert Baer explains what happened, and what it says about the culture of the agency.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Just before New Year's, a group of CIA officers at a remote base in eastern Afghanistan waited for a very important visitor. He just might be the man they've been looking for since 9/11, a mole inside the leadership of al-Qaida. But moments after Humam al-Balawi arrived, he detonated a suicide vest that killed seven Americans and a Jordanian.

In the April edition of GQ magazine, former CIA operative Robert Baer deconstructs the deadliest attack on the CIA in more than a quarter century and the mistakes that led up to it. And he joins us today from our bureau in New York. Bob Baer, nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. ROBERT BAER (Columnist, GQ): It's great to be back.

CONAN: And the prize here must have been very tempting.

Mr. BAER: It was extremely tempting. We've never been inside al-Qaida at the level that this man promised us. He was providing pictures. He was providing -recounting meetings he'd had with senior leadership. In the back of everybody's mind there was a hope that we would be able to drop a Hellfire missile on Zawahari, the number two in al-Qaida, and maybe even the golden ring or the brass ring, and that would be finding Bin Laden.

CONAN: One of the pieces of information he provided was describing the effects of CIA drone attacks on al-Qaida bases in Pakistan.

Mr. BAER: Absolutely. He was describing - what you can do is, with overhead photography, is check a source's report, like this guy's, and to see whether he's telling the truth. Now there is some dispute that a lot of the information - this is what al-Qaida has claimed was disinformation. In fact, it was bad information. But I tend to take the CIA's version that he was providing details that only an insider could provide. It was why they took so many risks to meet this guy in Afghanistan.

CONAN: And Humam al-Balawi was a Jordanian doctor and an asset of Jordanian intelligence. And you write that these days it is not unusual for the CIA to rely on allied intelligence services in cases like this.

Mr. BAER: Well, Jordan because they're so good. The Jordanian intelligence service is probably the best in the Middle East, probably after Iran, but it's certainly very, very good. And the Jordanians vetted this man, Balawi. They'd had him under interrogation. They knew his family. The promised, you know, money to the family. They thought they knew the man. But in fact - and I think the Jordanians would admit this - you cannot get inside the head of a suicide bomber.

CONAN: And this then - there was then a series of mistakes including, well, allowing this man the decision to gather such a large group of CIA officers to meet this man.

Mr. BAER: Well, more than that. I mean, there was, as I understand, there were three rings of security getting inside this base, Camp Chapman. The question is why didn't they run Balawi through a metal detector. It would have shown the shrapnel around his waist. It would have - or even a scanner would have showed that there was something unusual in the middle of this man. And they didn't start to search him, according to the CIA account, until he was at the motor pool where he was going to be taken in and debriefed.

And what happened was there was 13 people outside waiting for this man including the Afghan driver and the Jordanian officer. This, for Balawi and al-Qaida, this was a heaven-sent opportunity because what they had been planning to do was simply kidnap the Jordanian, hold him for ransom, put him on trial or whatever. And the fact that the CIA's tradecraft fell apart - tradecraft is a spy's craft...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BAER: ...was really the huge mistake. I mean, if - normally in a circumstance like this, one CIA officer would drive to the border, pick him up, and the conversation we would be having today is about the death of one CIA officer. But no one would be pointing the finger at the CIA and saying, what's happened to your spy's craft?

CONAN: And the mistakes here, you say, are emblematic of a long series of decisions at the Central Intelligence Agency that go back many years. And you describe a division within the CIA that has been very important in how this happened.

Mr. BAER: This is the CIA, the directorate of operations. It runs the National Security Agency, does intercepts and the CIA DAT runs human sources. And it used to have a mentoring system where you would spend 10 years in the field before you were a journeyman case officer or this is an operative. But in this case, the base chief who was calling all the shots had been essentially a clerk. She had - she knew al-Qaida. She was a good targeting officer. She was obviously extremely brave and patriotic, but she hadn't spent any real time in the Middle East, except short visits.

She had not gone through the CIA's explosives course, which can go on for months. I mean, it's - you actually build vests. You blow up cars. You get a healthy respect for explosives. And then there's a language, which she didn't have at all. So in essence, you've taken a staff officer and put her in charge to the most dangerous base in the world.

CONAN: And that led to a series of mistakes. You say, in fact, not necessarily her fault that she was set up to fail, but nevertheless that this man should have been that by one intelligence CIA officer not by seven. And...

Mr. BAER: I think...

CONAN: ...and that he should have been searched.

Mr. BAER: I think what we're seeing is the CIA's overextended. It has been since 9/11. The CIA knows it, that - you can't get people to serve in these places anymore. They've been at it nine years. The CIA is a small service. It was decimated in the '90s when the - at the end of the Cold War. The whole training cycle has been interrupted. We can't get people in the language.

But more than that, this is - and I hate to put this way - is a military problem. It's General McChrystal, the commander there, who says, I need CIA people in Khost. This is where the explosion took place. I need hundreds of them in Kabul. You know, the military is a big organization. It can run a lot of people through. It has a lot of reserves. The CIA doesn't.

So we're looking at, in Iraq and Afghanistan, a CIA that's very much subordinate to the military. And if the military says, you need to keep 500 people in Kabul and 500 in Baghdad, that's what the CIA does. And so it's had draw, you know, down into the ranks, unfortunately. And, you know, we're losing our expertise by putting so many people in these places when they could be easily manned by 10 people in each capital.

CONAN: That seems like a very small number.

Mr. BAER: It is small. But the CIA - you have to look at it - when I was in through the '90s, would have maybe a thousand people, operatives overseas. That's everywhere in the world. So when I was in Beirut, there were just - and we (unintelligible) in Beirut, but no one was interfering with what we were doing. There were maybe two people there, and that's when the hostages were there, to give you an idea the scale we're talking about. And at some point, during the war in Iraq, the CIA station was up to 700 people, which is an enormous strain on the CIA, and it was politically mandated by the White House.

CONAN: And you go further to say that, indeed, going back many years, there has been a division within the CIA that there was a fundamental decision, that field operatives were unreliable, that we needed to rely much more on analysis in Washington, D.C. from photography and from electronic intercepts and other sources like that, and that's a good way to stay out of trouble.

Mr. BAER: Oh, I think we believed that in the '90s. I think we thought that open source information was enough, satellites, intercepts, and that the directorate of operations and the operatives could only get us into trouble.

Now, there's a certain, you know, justification for that opinion. And that is, you look at the Bay of Pigs, it was an absolute catastrophe. And it was 1961 when the CIA - the Cubans that were working for the CIA invaded Cuba and then, you know, it was a catastrophe politically as well as for the CIA.

Now, I mind you that that operation was mandated by the Kennedy White House, originally by the Eisenhower White House.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BAER: So it was not invented inside the CIA. But this all takes me back to the politicization of the CIA. It was dragged into Iran-Contra that was never the CIA's idea and one scandal after another. But what happens with each political scandal, it's the CIA that pays the price rather than the White House.

CONAN: And this decision to, well, deactivate, if you will, the directorate of operations. You say fundamentally reduced our capabilities in such a way that, well, made this kind of thing possible and, indeed, inevitable.

Mr. BAER: I was inevitable. I mean, the view was that operatives - it was all James Bond, it was Mickey Mouse, you know, where do these guys lurking around. And, you know, this is another century. What do we really need them for? What do we need people playing with explosives and car bombs and all this, you know, covert communications? And what we saw in the '90s was a lot of analysts, and these are very smart people with PhDs, were put in charge of CIA stations. And their attitude is, you know, I'm on a, you know, sabbatical.

And I'm going to go to the Ukraine or wherever. I'm going to study and improve my language, but they were never in the business of recruiting informants, which is what the directorate of operations should be about and used to be about.

CONAN: And let's get a caller on the line. This is Betsy(ph). Betsy with us from Wenatchee in Washington.

BETSY (Caller): Hi, yes. I have a question about the involvement of what's known as the former Blackwater, or Xe, and the CIA operation where the suicide bomber killed seven people. Here in the papers in Washington state, they talked about it wasn't seven CIA agents. It was five CIA agents and two people from Xe.

CONAN: Spelled X-E.

BETSY: Yes. And they never got mentioned again. They were there for one brief day, and then it reverted to seven CIA agents were killed. And I'm wondering how much involvement Xe has in CIA operations and, indeed, in military operations.

CONAN: Well, I'm not sure we have the time to answer that second one, but what about Khost?

Mr. BAER: You know, in Khost, there were two Blackwater physical security guys there who died - died, you know, courageously. They were supposed to pat the guy down as he was coming in the interrogation center. But the problem with Blackwater is what we're doing is essentially outsourcing intelligence, because not they're just not providing physical security, they're going out and collecting information, they're running informants, they're deciding what's important, what's not.

There is something in New York Times yesterday about this, about private companies. The problem is that intelligence is inherently a government function, and once you turn it over to corporate America it only becomes worse. I've never seen contractors ever in my 21 years in the CIA collect good intelligence. It's hard for them. They're driven by profits. And the fact that Blackwater is still operating, working for the CIA, is another indicator of the place being broken.

CONAN: Betsy, thanks for the call.

BETSY: Thank you.

CONAN: Broken - how badly broken? What needs to be done now?

Mr. BAER: Well, first of all, we need a civilian intelligence agency. If we don't have the CIA, we need something very much like it. The military collects tactical intelligence. It does it very well in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that's where it stops. The Defense Intelligence Agency, which is part of the Pentagon, is not particularly good at doing strategic intelligence.

But more than that, we need competition, because American intelligence in Afghanistan, for instance, reports to General Stanley McChrystal. And if he needs to go into a battle, he does not want to hear a dissenting view. This is human nature, dont blame it on McChrystal. But if you had a CIA there who could say, wait a minute, that's not the way we see it, it would give an opposing view to the president. We do not want to subordinate the CIA to the Department of Defense. That would be a huge institutional catastrophe for this country.

CONAN: Robert Baer, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. BAER: Thank you.

CONAN: Robert Baer's article about the Khost bombing appears in the April issue of GQ magazine. You can find a link to it at npr.org., just click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us today from our bureau in New York.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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