How The CIA Got Duped: 'The Triple Agent'
MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:
JOBY WARRICK: Hi, it's nice to be back.
LOUISE 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.
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.
LOUISE KELLY: Baked him a birthday cake.
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.
LOUISE KELLY: 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.
WARRICK: 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.
LOUISE KELLY: Before we go any further, explain the title of your book, "The Triple Agent."
WARRICK: 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.
LOUISE 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?
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.
LOUISE 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.
WARRICK: 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.
LOUISE 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?
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.
LOUISE 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.
WARRICK: 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.
LOUISE KELLY: Joby Warrick, thanks very much.
WARRICK: I enjoyed this. Thank you.
LOUISE KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.