The intelligence wars

The intelligence wars

January 6th, 2010 in Opinion Times

The American public usually does not see the inner workings and connections of American and foreign intelligence services' operations. So it is instructive -- and sadly ironic given Dick Cheney's misguided fusillade last week against the Obama administration's anti-terrorism efforts -- to learn that the deaths of seven elite American CIA agents and contractors in a secure Afghan base in Khost occurred when a Jordanian double-agent exploded a suicide bomb in a meeting with the agents and his Jordanian escort.

Their discussions with the Jordanian spy had been arranged to boost America's war effort and anti-terrorism campaign by infiltrating foreign jidahist al-Qaida cells that are aiding the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Around the time Mr. Cheney's withering partisan criticism was being parsed, the American agents' remains were being transported back to the United States. A private ceremony for them was held Monday when their caskets arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Maryland. Their names were not released.

The information reported since about the presumed Jordanian double-agent was published in both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. Their reporters, quoting a number of former intelligence and diplomatic authorities who requested their identities be withheld given the sensitivity of the issue, laid out a spy scenario that could occur only within the framework of a continuing and intensive American intelligence operation against al-Qaida's senior leadership in particular and terrorism in general.

According to their reports, the Jordanian, identified as Humam Khalil Mohammed, a physician, had been recruited by the Jordanian spy service, the General Intelligence Directorate. His task was to infiltrate al-Qaida cells of foreign Arab jidahists in Afghanistan to aid the United States military and to help Jordan's GID tamp down extremism in Jordan and other Muslim countries.

Mr. Mohammed's suicide blast hurts the goals of both the CIA and the GID. The GID apparently was extremely embarrassed to discover that its undercover agent, Mr. Mohammed, was a double-agent who was mainly loyal to al-Qaida and who had successfully outmaneuvered the GID's intelligence barriers. It is also concerned that its reportedly strong cooperation with the United States, which is not commonly known in Jordan, may now be exposed at home, and weaken its ties with the CIA.

The CIA had expected Mr. Mohammed to pose as an Arab jihadi to infiltrate the jihadist Arab al-Qaida terrorists cells and their militant networks in the violent provinces around Khost. It had also hoped Mr. Mohammed could lead the agency to Osama bin Laden's chief deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri. Progress on both goals has been harshly set back, and the CIA's own tactics and progress may be compromised by the betrayal.

The suicide bombing also suggests that al-Qaida leaders and other extremists groups are not nearly on the run as much as the U.S. military may like to believe. Intelligence analysts reasonably suggest that the tactics and background work that are required to pull off a double-agent operation require hard-nosed and thoughtful planning -- and ample time to think of offensive strategies.

That Mr. Mohammed was allowed to evade the security checks for explosives when he entered the CIA's Khost base, Forward Operating Base Chapman, is also troubling. He traveled in on CIA faith in his Jordanian resume and escort, Capt. Sharif Ali bin Zeid, who also was killed in the blast.

That lapse took too many lives, and spoiled potentially potent operational plans. But it wouldn't have happened at all if the Obama administration was not already knee deep in an imposing but quiet offensive strategy against Islamic extremists -- the very people former Vice President Cheney accuses the Obama administration of neglecting in a "pretend war" against terrorism.

Like the attention to Yemen also sustained by the Obama administration, Washington's effort to thwart terrorism continues apace. It's inaccurate (Mr. Cheney would have said traitorous when he was in office) for Mr. Cheney to say otherwise.