Free Markets, Free People

Bad Tradecraft Kills

I’m troubled by the unfortunate killing of 7 members of the CIA in Khost province, Afghanistan.  How in the world did a suicide bomber manage to get to that many CIA employees in a remote FOB?

Well it appears it was mostly a matter of bad tradecraft – a breakdown in procedures designed to ensure situations like that don’t develop.

First, this was an asset that the CIA had been using to get next to al Qaeda number two Zawahiri. He’d been to the FOB before and, apparently, was promising some information that enticed a number of CIA members to the FOB. That was a major mistake:

Said Bob Baer, a former CIA case officer, “It is sort of a grim calculation but normally when you meet an asset like this you have one, maybe two people. So I think people are going to point out inside the agency that they shouldn’t have 13 people there.”

“Why the officers would show a source all their faces, that alone was a terrible decision,” said one former senior CIA paramilitary operative who served in Afghanistan and requested anonymity when discussing sensitive and classified matters. “This is a sad, sad event, but it was a complete security breakdown.”

Why they felt it was necessary to flaunt security and tradecraft conventions remains a mystery, but frankly, that bit of stupidity didn’t have to be fatal. This bit of stupidity, however, almost ensured it:

Al-Balawi had been to Chapman previously and because of the information he was promising, CIA officers told Afghan guards to allow him past the first of three checkpoints without searching him. The bomber was actually escorted around the checkpoints, and the officers also told the guards to vacate the area, sources told ABC News.

So this combination of flaunting the rules of their tradecraft and security procedures cost them 7 CIA employees and 3 or 4 others associated with them.

In the line of business these people are engaged, complacency kills. Short cuts kill. There’s a reason for the existence of certain procedures, however time consuming and onerous they  may seem. The fact that their tradecraft was so blatantly and obviously disregarded is disturbing. And, as you might imagine, the consequences, while devastating, aren’t unexpected.

When you’re dealing in life and death situations where anything is possible, you cannot assume anything. Your “asset” could be just what this guy was – a double agent. The poor assumptions made to put this guy in front of 13 CIA employees are mind boggling. And they make you wonder, given the situation, how well trained these people were in the tradecraft which should have prevented this from occurring, or at least minimized its effect.

Regardless, what you now have to hope is a new emphasis will be made on the tradecraft that should have prevented this situation from developing. But these deaths and why they occurred do not at all reflect well on the CIA – an organization which is supposed to be our finest and most proficient asset for gathering foreign intelligence.



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10 Responses to Bad Tradecraft Kills

  • It may be that the CIA has very few officers who take even the concept of “tradecraft” seriously.  Perhaps I am very wrong, but I have gotten the impression that CIA is principally staffed with academics who are far more comfortable with pouring over satellite photos and tables of statistics in the safety of their offices than they are with the dirty job of intelligence work in a foreign country, ESPECIALLY a dirty, dangerous sh*thole like A-stan.  Indeed, after Watergate and the Carter years, I think that there is a positive aversion at CIA to covert operations, field work, and especially “wet work”.  So, the officers may have had only the haziest ideas of “tradecraft” in the first place.

    More importantly, the apparent value of Al-Balawi doubtless led the officers to let their guards down, to handle him with kid gloves to avoid “insulting” him and his Jordanian masters: “This guy has risked his life to get us good intel; don’t p*ss him off by patting him down like a common criminal”.  Further, they’d probably all met with him before and had developed a corresponding level of trust.

    It is ironic that intelligence work, which so often requires treachery, double-dealing, and dishonesty, is often undone by misplaced or excessive trust.  Think about some of the great intelligence debacles of the Cold War: Hiss, Philby, the Walkers, etc.  In retrospect, they should have been caught long before they were, and indeed should never have had the opportunity to do the damage that they did.  However, people (foolishly but understandably) trusted them: “No worries: he’s on OUR side.”

  • Massoud was killed by a bomb in a video camera on 9 Sep 01.
    Richard Reed shoe bomber in March of 2002.
    A suicide bomber attempted to blow up the Saudi anti terrorism chief last August.
    The Xmas day body bomber on flt 253.
    You don’t have to be a genius to connect those dots. Sadly, the CIA agents paid for the careless choice of someone and there’s no telling how damaging that was.
    We have become complacent and we may pay a high price for that.

  • Counter points:
    1. The source’s excuse was that he was afraid of being identified by the Afghan guards, etc. This does not seem unreasonable to me.
    2. Normally, meetings would be held off base to avoid 1. above,  but our dudes stick out like a sore thumb in the local tea shop, and we are worried about getting bombed or kidnapped out there anyways.
    3. The dude had already given good intel…smart move by AQ, but would lull most into believing the guy was legit. (even so, they should have known better.)
    What we need is a scanner that sets of bomb materials. That would stop all of this nonsense, and would not be a strip search or humiliating.

  • I blame the Senator Frank Church “witchhunt” hearings on 1975 for the demise of the CIA.

  • It doesn’t strike me as anything unusual for a source like that to be turned. It could be for any number of reasons — threats to his family, for instance. If the other side made him, then he’s got to die to make things right or, let’s say, his entire known family has to die. Since he’s dead, the secret probably dies with him. But I don’t think we’ll be getting too many more details about it, in any case.

    There’s not any good excuse for failing to thoroughly check him for weapons and explosives on arrival, however. That’s sloppy. He probably had a very well-cultivated rapport with the CIA operatives, that led to a groupthink “he’s O.K., it’s just our buddy Mo” thing.

    That’s not unusual. A majority of American society did that in the election of 2008, for instance.