A lot of ink has been spilled describing what went wrong with the attempted terror attack on Northwest flight 253 on Christmas Day. And a lot of distressing information has certainly come out about the intelligence and security failures evident in the near-success of the Eunuch-bomber.
There seems to be comparatively less attention paid to the suicide bomber who attacked a CIA base in Afghanistan last week, killing seven Americans and one Jordanian along with himself. Yet the prospect that Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi was a double agent working against the CIA — when we thought he was infiltrating al Qaeda for us — may reflect even worse on our capabilities and be an even more worrying sign about the terrorist outfit’s sophistication.
About what the al-Balawi attack says about the CIA and al Qaeda, former CIA agent Reuel Marc Gerecht writes today in The Wall Street Journal:
This operation could well have been months—if not longer—in the making, and neither the Jordanian intelligence service (GID), which supplied the double agent to the CIA, nor Langley apparently had any serious suspicion that al-Balawi still had the soul and will of a jihadist.
That is an impressive feat. The Hashemite monarchy imprisons lots of Islamic militants, and the GID has the responsibility to interrogate them. The dead Jordanian official, Sharif Ali bin Zeid, reportedly a member of the royal family, may not have been a down-and-dirty case officer with considerable hands-on contact with militants, but al-Balawi surely passed through some kind of intensive screening process with the GID. Yet the GID and the CIA got played, and al Qaeda has revealed that it is capable of running sophisticated clandestine operations with sustained deception.
Gerecht lays some blame on procedural and operational failures among CIA leadership. But he also writes that — eight years after 9/11 — the CIA’s in-house talent and knowledge relating to Arab countries and language is sorely lacking. For instance:
The CIA uses the GID so often not because the Jordanians are brilliant but because the Americans are so often, at best, mediocre. The GID’s large cadre of English-speaking officers makes liaison work easy with Langley, which has never been blessed with a large number of Arabic-speaking officers, particularly within the senior ranks.
In light of President Obama’s remarks yesterday about what went wrong with Northwest flight 253, Gerecht weighs some possible measures to take after the attack on the CIA in Afghanistan.
[Obama] did not come into office pledging to reform the CIA, only restrain it from aggressively interrogating al Qaeda terrorists. There is near zero chance that the president will attempt to improve the Agency operationally in the field. His counterterrorist adviser, John Brennan, is as institutional a case officer as Langley has ever produced. If Attorney General Eric Holder is so unwise as to bring any charges against a CIA officer for the rough interrogation of an al Qaeda detainee during the Bush administration, the president will likely find himself deluged with damaging CIA-authored leaks. Mr. Obama would be a fool to confront the CIA on two fronts.
But the president is likely to compensate for systemic weakness in American intelligence in substantial, effective ways. Mr. Obama has been much more aggressive than President George W. Bush was in the use of drone attacks and risky paramilitary operations. One can easily envision him expanding such attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Visa issuances, airport security, and perhaps even FBI surveillance of American Muslim militants are likely to become much tougher under Mr. Obama than under Mr. Bush. President Obama will, no doubt, continue to say empirically bizarre things about Guantanamo’s imprisonment system creating jihadists, but his administration will now likely find another location to jail militants indefinitely. Too many of President Bush’s released detainees have returned to terrorism.
What’s clear is that our counterterror operations clearly are still lacking — a sad fact that has been undermining both the Bush and the Obama approaches to fighting terrorists.