Rupert Cornwell: Another blow for the agency caps a miserable 2009

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The Independent Online

The loss of seven, perhaps more, CIA operatives at Base Chapman caps what has been a miserable year for the most important American intelligence agency, even by its own unhappy recent standards.

It began with controversy over the CIA's involvement in the waterboarding of terrorist suspects – a practice that in reality had long been discontinued, but which merely confirmed that one of the most important US security agencies had employed techniques that almost everyone regards as torture.

This was quickly followed by a row with Congress over whether the agency had illegally withheld details of a secret post 9/11 programme to assassinate terrorist leaders fighting against the US. The dispute quickly blew over, but underlined how, in a system of checks and balances where the legislature and the presidency are separate and equal branch of governments, the CIA faces greater public scrutiny than its counterparts abroad.

But its miseries of the past few days touch upon its core missions. The "systemic and human failure" – to use President Obama's words – that allowed a young Nigerian student of known extremist views to come within an ace of blowing up a US airliner suggest that the CIA has still not absorbed the lessons of 9/11. Again, it failed to pass on information that, pieced with other evidence elsewhere in the US intelligence system, might have stopped Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from getting on the plane in the first place. Other agencies must take a share of the blame; the CIA will be shouldering the bulk of it.

As for the suicide bombing at Base Chapman, it is not only the deadliest single episode for the CIA since the attack on the US Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983, but also another heavy personal and professional blow for an agency which, like it or not, will be playing a key part if the US and its allies are to prevail over the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. One must hope that 2010 is a better year for the CIA.