Afghan Bombing: A Failure Of Counterintelligence Last week's deadly attack at a CIA base in Khost resulted from the failure of "counterintelligence," the work of keeping your enemy from penetrating your own defenses. During the Cold War, counterintelligence was largely a spy-versus-spy game. Now, the challenge is different but no less important.
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Afghan Bombing: A Failure Of Counterintelligence

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Afghan Bombing: A Failure Of Counterintelligence

Afghan Bombing: A Failure Of Counterintelligence

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

We begin this hour with two stories about how intelligence is gathered. First, the case of the seven Americans killed last week in Afghanistan. They were working for the CIA on a counterterrorism mission. The attack on them seems to have been the result of a counterintelligence failure. The suicide bomber had worked as an informant for the Jordanian intelligence agency, but he was, in fact, a double agent, loyal to al-Qaida or another terrorist network.

NPR's Tom Gjelten reports now on the challenges of counterintelligence.

TOM GJELTEN: Counterintelligence is a specialty. It's not just spying on your enemy. It's getting information about your enemy's efforts to spy on you. The intelligence mission of tracking down terrorists, obviously, depends on having good informants, agents who can tell you what al-Qaida is up to. The counterintelligence task is to make sure your informants aren't secretly working for your enemy. Michael Hurley, a former CIA officer, who pursued al-Qaida in Afghanistan, describes how it should work.

Mr. MICHAEL HURLEY (Former CIA Officer): They will say, I went to this district or province in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, and they will say, I saw this terrorist there. This is someone you should be interested in. Well, the first question to ask is, were they really there? Were they standing outside the house that they say they saw this person in? Does any of that make sense, is it logical?

GJELTEN: There are dozens of questions to be answered before an informant can really be trusted. Is he really who he says he is? Is the information he offers verifiable? It's detailed painstaking work and because it's defensive rather than offensive, the rewards may not be so great. Burton Gerber is a 40-year CIA veteran, and the co-editor of a new book on rediscovering counterintelligence.

Mr. BURTON GERBER (CIA Veteran; Co-Editor, "Vaults, Mirrors, and Masks: Rediscovering U.S. Counterintelligence"): It's not sexy. 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, you know, jumping off the cliff when you don't want to?

GJELTEN: Good counterintelligence does not take you closer to your target. It stops him 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 9/11, intelligence agencies are under greater than ever pressure to find them.

Mr. GERBER: People want to produce, and cutting corners is a way to do it. And the more pressure there is in terms of, you know, bring me the head of Osama bin Laden, it is that people begin doing things fast instead of well.

GJELTEN: Intelligence officials say the suicide bomber who attacked the CIA base in Afghanistan had offered information on the whereabouts of Ayman al-Zawahiri. He'd been working for the Jordanian intelligence service, whose agents reportedly vouched for his reliability. But one of the cardinal rules of counterintelligence work is to remember that the other side is always going to be going after your agents. In the words of one former intelligence official, you never own them, you only rent them. Again, Burton Gerber.

Mr. GERBER: You are still conscious of the fact that something could've happened to that source since the last time you saw him or her. And therefore, every source needs to be revalidated with every meeting.

GJELTEN: All these are classic counterintelligence challenges, but in the counterterrorism context, the stakes can be even higher. Michael Hurley points out that during the Cold War, the enemy spies just wanted to learn about us.

Mr. HURLEY: It was to get information and learn about, you know, our capabilities, what we were doing against them and so on. Where, in this case, it's often just to get people with very bad and lethal intent in close to our personnel so that they can kill them.

GJELTEN: That was clearly the case with last week's suicide bomber. Presumably, he could've taken advantage of his access to his U.S. and Jordanian handlers to find out more about U.S. counterterrorism operations. Instead, he just blew them up as soon as he had the opportunity.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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