Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Triple Agent

Via Newsweek -

On Dec. 30, 2009, seven CIA operatives were killed at a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan, when a Jordanian double agent who claimed to have cracked Al Qaeda’s inner circle proved instead to be a suicide bomber—in other words, a triple agent.

The attack, the deadliest for the CIA in 25 years, was unlike any in the agency’s history. Over the decades, a multitude of CIA informants had lied, defrauded, betrayed, stolen money, or skipped town. But none had sought to lure his handlers into a trap with the aim of killing them, along with himself.

A 2010 internal CIA review identified a chain of failures that allowed 32-year-old physician Humam al-Balawi to gain access to the highly secure CIA base, breezing through checkpoints without a search until he came face to face with a large gathering of CIA officers anxious to meet him. Balawi had promised to deliver Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy to Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. (Last week, in the wake of bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri emerged as the terrorist group’s new leader, though he was already in essence its operational commander.)

Balawi had backed his intelligence claims with evidence so electrifying that even President Obama had been briefed in advance. But the Jordanian was not what he seemed.

The warning signs, painfully obvious in hindsight, would be obscured by two singular forces that collided at Khost on that late-December day. One was the mind of Balawi, a man who flitted pre-cariously between opposing camps. The other was the eagerness of war-weary intelligence operatives who saw a mirage and desperately wanted it to be real.


Excerpted from the forthcoming The Triple Agent by Joby Warrick.

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