Bombing reveals CIA’s changes

Agency’s role, risks expand in Afghanistan

By Mark Mazzetti
New York Times / January 1, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The deaths of seven CIA operatives at a remote base in the mountains of Afghanistan is a pointed example of the civilian spy agency’s transformation in recent years into a paramilitary organization at the vanguard of America’s far-flung wars.

The CIA operatives stationed at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost Province, where Wednesday’s suicide bombing occurred, were responsible for collecting information about militant networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plotting missions to kill the networks’ top leaders. In recent months, US officials said, CIA officers at the base had begun an aggressive campaign against a radical group run by Sirajuddin Haqqani, which has claimed responsibility for the deaths of dozens of US troops.

Even as the CIA expands its role in Afghanistan, it is also playing a greater role in quasi-military operations elsewhere, using drone aircraft to launch a steady barrage of missile strikes in Pakistan and sending more operatives to Yemen to assist local officials in their attempts to roll back Al Qaeda’s momentum in that country.

Over the past year, the CIA has built up an archipelago of firebases in southern and eastern Afghanistan, moving agency operatives out of the embassy in Kabul and closer to their targets.

But the push to the front lines carries great risk.

In 1983 in Beirut, a car bomb loaded with 2,000 pounds of explosives killed eight CIA officers stationed at the heavily fortified US Embassy in the city. In Khost on Wednesday, all it took was one man bent on martyrdom to enter a remote base and inflict a similar toll on the spy agency’s relatively small work force.

Among those killed, officials said, was the chief of the Khost base, who was a mother of three and a veteran of the agency’s clandestine branch. Besides the seven CIA officers who died, the blast also wounded six agency personnel, according to a CIA statement.

Current and former intelligence officials said yesterday that early evidence indicated that the bomber, in Afghan military fatigues, might have been taken onto the base as a possible informant and might not have been subjected to rigorous screening. But details about the episode remained murky, and a NATO official said the bomber had managed to elude security and reach an area near the base’s gym.

CIA personnel regularly take foreign agents onto the base before sending them on intelligence collection missions in eastern Afghanistan and across the border into Pakistan, said one Pentagon consultant who works closely with the CIA in Afghanistan.

“You must to some degree make yourself known to people you don’t trust,’’ said one US intelligence official who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke anonymously to discuss classified information.

The bomber appears to have worn an explosives-laden suicide vest under an Afghan National Army uniform, two NATO officials said yesterday.

Forward Operating Base Chapman sits in an isolated spot several miles from the town of Khost, but not far from Camp Salerno, a larger base used by Special Operations troops.

US officials said that the CIA base had been a focal point for counterterrorism operations against the Haqqani network, a particularly lethal militant group that operates on both sides of the Afghan border.

“Those guys have recently been on a big Haqqani binge,’’ said the Pentagon consultant. “I would be really shocked if the bombing on Wednesday wasn’t some kind of retaliation.’’

The CIA has always had a paramilitary branch known as the Special Activities Division.