No disciplinary action in deaths of 7 CIA workers

In this book cover image released by Encounter Books, 'The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture,' released under the pseudonym Ishmael Jones, is shown. In this book cover image released by Encounter Books, "The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture," released under the pseudonym Ishmael Jones, is shown. (AP Photo/Encounter Books)
By Kimberly Dozier and Adam Goldman
Associated Press Writers / October 19, 2010

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WASHINGTON—Despite glaring security blunders, no intelligence officials will be fired or disciplined for failing to prevent a 2009 suicide bombing in Afghanistan that killed seven CIA employees in one of the deadliest attacks in the agency's history, CIA Director Leon Panetta said Tuesday.

Panetta said separate internal reviews concluded that critical warnings about the Jordanian double agent who set off the explosion inside a base in Afghanistan base were not shared with other officials, security measures on the base were insufficient and it was unclear who was in charge of the operation.

But a patchwork system left no one in charge of rigorously checking the double agent's background and loyalties before he was taken to the base.

Panetta told reporters Tuesday that the agency would undergo structural changes, including tightening security procedures, setting up a war advisory board to better train agents in combat zones and creating an analytic team to better spot double agents.

Still, Panetta said he would not fire or take other disciplinary action against field officers and headquarters officials who oversaw the double agent, Humam al-Balawi, in the months before he set off the explosion in Khost on Dec. 30, 2009. Some changes, such as full-scale searches of all agents who visit an American compound, have already been implemented, Panetta said.

"Responsibility cannot be assigned to any particular individual or group," he said, a phrase he repeated in a statement to CIA employees Tuesday evening.

Panetta acknowledged a "systemic breakdown" occurred but said the "task force did not place blame on any individual or group."

"If anything, all of us bear some responsibility ... and all of us have to fix it," he said.

The six-month internal review by CIA officials, as well as a second independent review by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired CIA analyst Charles Allen, both concluded that the combined agency failures allowed the al-Qaida double agent to enter the CIA base at Khost.

Al-Balawi managed to kill five CIA employees, including the base chief, and two CIA security contractors, as well as the Jordanian intelligence officer and Afghan driver who had brought him there. Six other officers were wounded.

Al-Balawi was being brought to the CIA's base to be "assessed" whether he was as close as he claimed to his militant target, al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, Panetta said. At the base, intelligence officials planned to give al-Balawi training in "tools of tradecraft" and how to communicate Zawahiri's location back to his handlers.

Panetta said that al-Balawi's "handler," a Jordanian intelligence officer trusted by the Americans, had vouched for him, and that al-Balawi had already proven to the Americans that he had solid connections to al-Qaida.

Intelligence officials said al-Balawi had appeared to prove himself by describing al-Qaida practices known only to the agency and by verifying some high-value militant targets who had been killed in Predator drone strikes.

But 25 days before the bombing, Jordanian intelligence service had raised concerns about al-Balawi's loyalties as an operative with an American CIA officer in Jordan, Panetta said. Their suspicions arose after al-Balawi made repeated entreaties to the CIA officers in Afghanistan to visit him in the insurgent stronghold of Miram Shah in Pakistan's North Waziristan province -- a place too dangerous for CIA officers to operate.

The Jordanians felt al-Balawi was trying to lure the Americans into an ambush. But those suspicions were dismissed by the American intelligence officer in Jordan as bureaucratic maneuvering inside the Jordanian intelligence agency, and the warnings were not passed on to Kabul, Khost or Washington.

The Jordanian intelligence officer's concerns about al-Balawi normally would be a counterintelligence "red flag," said a person familiar with the report, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Allen, a former CIA officer who served for decades with the agency and helped lead the independent study, said warning signs about al-Balawi were missed both in the field and at headquarters. "There were counterintelligence deficiencies," he said.

Allen said the agency had also lost a lot of seasoned officers over the years, which had contributed to the failures. He said the ramping up of operations after the 9/11 attacks had put a lot of young officers in the field.

Panetta says the officers on the base were anxious to see al-Balawi, having waited about 10 days for him to arrive. His Jordanian intelligence handler had recommended that the CIA officers all come out to greet al-Balawi in deference to his high value to the agency, so more than dozen were waiting outside the building.

Panetta said al-Balawi wasn't searched because he was a trusted source.

The car carrying al-Balawi entered the inner compound, with the suicide bomber sitting in the back seat. Security officers approached to search him as he prepared to get out. But instead, the Jordanian slid to the opposite side of the seat and got out on the other side of the car -- away from the security officers. He started speaking in Arabic and reaching under the robe of the traditional clothing he wore. That's when security guards pulled their guns, but they were too late. Al-Balawi detonated the bomb.

His last-minute move to the other side of the car likely saved some lives, the director said, because car shielded most of the CIA employees on the other side. Of those who survived, many had severe leg injuries, because the blast traveled underneath the car.