- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 7, 2010

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.”

News reports on the case show that al-Balawi appears to have provided real intelligence information on al Qaeda in order to win the confidence of the Jordanian intelligence.

Ms. Van Cleave said the attack was “certainly a security failure” but that it is difficult to determine, without more details, whether CIA counterintelligence should have learned of the agent’s betrayal and prevented the bombing.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg problem,” she said. “You are trying to develop a penetration agent [in al Qaeda], and that requires developing positive intelligence. Yet, in developing those sources, how to get the kind of counterintelligence insights if you don’t have the penetrations to begin with?”

Overall, the bombing highlights what Ms. Van Cleave called a “huge counterintelligence problem” within U.S. spy agencies of not being able to detect foreign spies and terrorists who are recruited as sources of information.

Counterintelligence failures of the past often meant the loss of secrets that could have strategic consequences in wartime. The failure in Khost “demonstrates in a poignant and painful way the human cost we pay as a nation” for not having effective counterintelligence capabilities, she said.

The CIA was severely damaged by the case of CIA counterintelligence officer Aldrich Ames, who until his arrest in 1994 provided the Soviet Union and Russia with details of all the CIA’s recruited spies in Russia.

Spokesmen for the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment on the record.

A U.S. intelligence official who defended the CIA said counterintelligence factors are always weighed in the espionage business, and the CIA takes those factors seriously.

While all the facts surrounding Khost are not fully known, the official said, “no one in American intelligence trusts completely … any asset with an extremist background.”

“You have to use unsavory individuals to penetrate terrorist groups — a saint won’t get you inside,” the official said. “There’s huge risk and danger involved; that comes with the territory.”

The official said it is irresponsible to suggest that the hazards of terrorist recruitment efforts were somehow denied or ignored.

Eli Lake contributed to this report.

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