The recent bombing of a CIA base in Afghanistan revealed a sophisticated al Qaeda operation to plant a double agent inside Jordanian intelligence and highlighted the perennial problem of lax CIA counterspying, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials.
“I think it is clear we need to continue to beef up our counterintelligence,” Rep. Peter Hoekstra said in response to the Khost attack.
“We need to recognize in this part of the world, al Qaeda and radical jihadist sympathizers are difficult to spot and we can never let down our guard,” said Mr. Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Before the double agent in Khost blew himself up, killing seven CIA employees and a Jordanian military officer, intelligence broke down recently on two other occasions.
U.S. intelligence agencies failed to act on communications intelligence indicating that the Army major suspected of carrying out the Fort Hood, Texas, massacre of U.S. Army personnel was in touch with a radical Islamist cleric in the months before the November mass shooting.
Another failure occurred with the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 by a Nigerian Islamist linked to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Intelligence agencies failed to transfer and act on the data provided to the CIA about the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
President Obama said Tuesday that the attempt to blow up the airliner showed that “the system has failed in a potentially disastrous way.”
Mr. Hoekstra said in an interview that the CIA station personnel in Afghanistan failed to protect their base and personnel in allowing the suicide bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, to detonate an explosive device at a meeting.
Mr. Hoekstra said the failure in Khost was “a tragic mistake.”
“It just gives you an understanding of how difficult this problem is,” he said. “We think we have recruited this guy from al Qaeda to spy for us. And in reality this guy is working for al Qaeda the whole time. And he was vetted by the Jordanians.”
Al-Balawi, a 36-year-old doctor from Zarqa, Jordan, was known to U.S. intelligence for his Internet commentaries on jihadist Web sites, U.S. officials said.
His extremist Web postings eventually drew the attention of al Qaeda and he was recruited into the group sometime in the past several years, an intelligence official said. “He was a double agent,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
At some point in the past two years, al-Balawi approached Jordanian intelligence and was recruited as an agent to lead the CIA and U.S. military to senior al Qaeda leaders and their plans, the official said.
The CIA was notified of his recruitment as a result of the close intelligence liaison with the Jordanian service.
Michelle Van Cleave, former national counterintelligence executive, said the Khost attack shows that al Qaeda and other Islamist extremists are “employing all the tools of sophisticated intelligence operations against us.”