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[Washington Babylon]

The Khost Bombing: What went wrong?

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The inestimable Jeff Stein is now writing for the Washington Post, and his debut “SpyTalk” column looks at the Khost bombing last December 30th, which killed seven CIA officers and contractors. “The base chief’s lack of operational experience, lethally mixed with a lack of rigorous supervision from senior officials from CIA headquarters on down, got her killed,” Stein writes, summarizing criticism from Robert Baer, a former clandestine operations officer, as well as other sources he spoke with.

A seasoned operative would have punched holes in her [the base chief’s] plan to bring Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi — a Jordanian doctor who persuaded the CIA he could penetrate the top circles of al-Qaeda — to the agency’s base in Khost, counters Charles Faddis, a career operative who retired in 2008.

As it turned out, Balawi had been dispatched by al-Qaeda in Pakistan. When he was picked up by an agency security team, he stepped into the car wearing a suicide vest of explosives. They failed to pat him down — another inexplicable lapse.

I’ve been hearing the same sort of criticism from people I’ve talked to. One said:

This was bad management and bad tradecraft. This was a clandestine meeting with a high-threat asset, yet they put thirteen people [the number of personnel killed or injured] in the immediate purview of an untrusted, unknown agent. You take risks during war, but thirteen people? They were already in the station when they were getting ready to search him. Judgment went out the window because they thought they were going to get Al Qaeda’s Number 2.”

Another former senior officer I spoke with was less scathing, but also critical. He said simply, “I can see how this happened but a series of steps were taken that were highly imprudent. There is no way this could sustain any serious review.”

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano told Stein:

“The agency continues to take a close, exacting look at the Khost attack. This organization learns both from its successes and its setbacks. It’s strange, though,” he added, “to see people—in some cases people who left here many years ago—posing as experts on operational tradecraft in the Afghan war zones.”

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