'Systemic' CIA failures blamed for deadly attack on Afghan base

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The Independent US

The deadly suicide bombing at a remote CIA base in Afghanistan last December was the result of "systemic failures", including basic security lapses and ignoring a prior warning from Jordanian intelligence that the bomber might be an al-Q'aida double agent.

This was the harsh verdict of Leon Panetta, the agency's director as he presented the results of an internal investigation of the attack in which seven CIA officers were killed – the deadliest such incident since the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, in which 17 agency operatives died.

But no individuals, not even the CIA officer in Amman who failed to pass on the warning from a Jordanian counterpart, are being singled out for censure. Instead, Mr Panetta announced a series of internal CIA changes, including tighter security procedures, a new advisory board to improve agent training for combat zones, and the establishment of an analytic team to identify double agents.

The refusal to make scapegoats reflects the fact that several of the individuals who made mistakes were themselves killed or badly wounded in the attack. Mr Panetta said only that "judgements were clouded" by the desire to capture a top al-Q'aida target, and that "if anything, all of us bear some responsibility." In fact the bomber, a Jordanian doctor named Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, managed to make his way to the heart of the base at Khost because he promised to lead them to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Q'aida's second in command.

The mission was considered so important that President Obama had received a personal briefing. Because Balawi was considered such a high-value and trustworthy source, he was not subjected to standard security procedures, and was met on his arrival by a large group of CIA officers.

In addition to the seven agency operatives, a Jordanian intelligence officer and an Afghan driver were killed, and six other CIA personnel were injured when Balawi detonated his vest stuffed with explosives. The blast would have been deadlier still had not Balawi's car stood between him and other Americans.

Balawi had been brought to the base to establish whether he was as close to al-Zawahiri as he claimed. The plan was for him to be trained in "tools of tradecraft" – most notably how to communicate the al-Q'aida leader's location back to the CIA. Consumed by the prospect of getting to the closest lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, Balawi's handlers brushed aside the warnings.

But the disaster, intelligence specialists here say, also suggests that despite every effort at reform, some CIA failings revealed by the 11 September attacks have still not been eliminated, including a lack of experienced personnel, and a tangled chain of command that saw different divisions of the agency competing to control the operation.