When I first learned the title of a new book that details a botched CIA operation in Afghanistan that claimed the lives of seven agency employees, I worried that the author hadn’t done his homework.
Called “The Triple Agent,” the term is the stuff of fiction in the world of professional counterintelligence officers, and the terrorist at the center of this book was a double agent. He was being jointly run by Jordanian intelligence and the CIA when al-Qaeda flipped him.
But the author, Joby Warrick of The Washington Post, quickly redeems himself in retelling one of the worst intelligence debacles in the history of the CIA, an event that shook the spy agency to its core. He successfully tears back the curtain on how the CIA conducted the operation, with graceful writing and an eye for detail.
Warrick even manages to break some news, which is hard to do in a case that has been so thoroughly picked over. Among other tidbits, he reveals which al-Qaeda leader dreamed up the deadly plan and how much the CIA’s Amman station chief was to blame.
On Dec. 31, 2009, a young doctor named Humam al-Balawi blew himself up at the CIA base in Khost. His powerful bomb blast sprayed body parts across the compound. Not only did the base chief die but he also managed to kill al-Balawi’s Jordanian handler, who was a cousin to King Abdullah II. Six other CIA officers were wounded. It was a major victory for al-Qaeda and a stunning defeat for the CIA.
Warrick, who clearly got help from the CIA and the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID) to write his book, picks an unsympathetic vehicle to drive the narrative: al-Balawi.
Warrick’s gamble works. He plunges into al-Balawi’s life. He tracks him to Jordan, where he posts his writings on jihadist Internet chat rooms until Jordanian intelligence arrests him. This is essentially the beginning of the end of al-Balawi’s life. He agrees to work with Jordanian intelligence under the control of the king’s cousin, Ali bin Zeid.
At first, it’s not clear how much value al-Balawi holds as a spy. He breaks quickly during his GID interrogation, but surprises his handlers and suggests he should go to the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan, where al-Qaeda operatives are hiding.
The GID and CIA decide to take a chance. They have nothing to lose by sending him to Pakistan -- if he dies, nobody would notice. In Pakistan, al-Balawi soon comes under the protection of Baitullah Mehsud, the chief of the Pakistan Taliban who had a $5 million bounty on his head. Al-Balawi reveals he works with the CIA. The clever Mehsud devises a test in which al-Balawi gives the CIA details about a car supposedly carrying Mehsud.
The CIA destroys the car. Al-Balawi has proven himself and is now effectively a double agent.
If there is a hero in this bloody tale, it’s a CIA officer named Darren LaBonte who was assigned the al-Balawi case with his counterpart Zeid. Working out of the Amman station, LaBonte, a former US Ranger and FBI agent, fretted that al-Balawi might be bad, telling a friend, “This guy is too good to be true.”
LaBonte was right. After the CIA killed Mehsud, al-Qaeda’s then No.3, Mustafa al-Yazid, also known as Sheikh Saeed al-Masri, hatched a plan to use al-Balawi to kill Zeid. When Zeid refused to go to Pakistan to meet al-Balawi in what now appears in hindsight to be an obvious ambush, al-Yazid switches gears and sends him to Khost wrapped in explosives.
LaBonte was concerned about whether al-Balawi could be trusted. He writes: “We need to go slow on this case.” The Amman station chief said if there was ever a moment to take a risk, it was now. LaBonte was overruled. After the fateful meeting in Khost had been arranged in which the CIA would meet this “golden source” for the first time, LaBonte appealed again to his Amman supervisors. “We’re moving too quickly. We’re giving up to much control by letting Balawi dictate events.”
The warning was waved off again by the Amman station chief. The case was too important, Warrick writes.
Warrick recounts what happens next in gruesome detail: The dead; the wounded; the carnage. Later, the CIA exacted revenge. On the day one of the dead was buried, the CIA killed al-Yazid in a drone strike.
The book ends without Warrick fully exploring the aftermath. He doesn’t probe the thinking of the senior CIA officials who approved the fiasco, nor does he discuss why no one was held accountable. Why didn’t CIA Director Leon Panetta punish anyone? Because he was afraid of the hard-to-handle clandestine service turning on him? He certainly bought their line after the attack. Mistakes happen in this risky business. Turned out there were systemic failures, not mere mistakes. These were questions worth answering.
Still, Warrick tells a riveting tale. It’s a must-read for counterterrorism and spy junkies.
“The Triple Agent,” by Joby Warrick, published by Doubleday Adam Goldman AP