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Jack Kelly
Shutting up the spies
Intelligence agencies want to hide their dirty linen
Sunday, October 24, 2010

The CIA suffered one of its biggest setbacks on Dec. 20, 2009, when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the agency's Afghanistan headquarters in Khost, along with four CIA officers, three security contractors and a Jordanian intelligence officer.

Among those killed were the CIA station chief and an analyst from headquarters in Langley, Va., who reportedly was the agency's foremost expert on al-Qaida. Six other CIA officers were injured in the blast.

The suicide bomber was Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian doctor who the CIA thought was an informant for them, but who was really an agent of Tehrik i Taliban Pakistan, the main Pakistani Taliban group.

Mr. Balawi's "penetration of the CIA was less like the product of an insurgency than an operation carried out by a national intelligence service," wrote George Friedman of STRATFOR, a private intelligence service. "The operation was by all accounts a masterful piece of tradecraft beyond the known abilities of a group like the [Pakistani Taliban]."

On Tuesday, CIA Director Leon Panetta told selected reporters an internal review found the CIA has been warned Mr. Balawi's loyalties were suspect, but the warnings were ignored. The body count was so high because security procedures at the base in Khost also were ignored.

The main takeaway for me from Mr. Panetta's briefing was his declaration that no one would be held accountable for the failures. It was deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra might say.

In my opinion, the biggest of the many mistakes made by President George W. Bush was his failure to clean out CIA headquarters after 9/11, the most egregious intelligence failure in CIA history.

"Agency employees expected the axe of accountability to fall at any moment," wrote "Ishmael Jones," a former deep cover CIA officer, in his 2008 book, "The Human Factor: Inside the CIA's Dysfunctional Intelligence Culture."

"Talk at HQ was that the seventh floor, where the CIA's top mandarins dwelt, would be swept clean," Ishmael said.

Instead, Mr. Bush threw money at the agency, most of which, according to Ishmael, has been wasted.

"In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Congress gave the CIA more than $3 billion to increase its deep cover capabilities overseas," Ishmael said. "The CIA was not able to field a single additional effective deep cover case officer overseas. The money was swallowed up into higher pay packages, expensive boondoggles, the enrichment of contracting companies run by former CIA employees and the expansion of CIA offices within the United States."

About 90 percent of CIA employees are stationed within the United States, Ishmael said. This seems odd for an organization whose job is collecting foreign intelligence.

Though Mr. Panetta is unwilling to discipline those whose blunders have endangered the security of the United States, he is moving with alacrity to shut up Ishmael. The Washington Times reported Monday that the CIA is suing him for publishing his book without the agency's permission.

"Ordering the lawsuit was a way for [Mr. Panetta] to curry favor with the CIA's senior bureaucrats," Ishmael said. "Panetta is beleaguered at the CIA and is in over his head. He's been Stockholmed by CIA bureaucracy and has become another failed Obama appointee."

The CIA isn't the only intelligence agency to use intimidation to silence whistleblowers. Lt. Col. Tony Shaffer was the Defense Intelligence Agency's liaison to Able Danger, an Army data mining project which, according to Mr. Shaffer and others who worked on the project, had identified Muhammad Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, as an al-Qaida operative long before he was permitted to enter the United States.

Able Danger was denied permission to share what it had discovered with other agencies, Mr. Shaffer said. After he told this to the staff of the 9/11 Commission, the DIA fired him. The reasons for the firing, the DIA said, were Mr. Shaffer's "misuse of a government telephone" in the amount of $67; "filing a false travel voucher" in the amount of $180, and his admission years before that as a teenager, he'd stolen a box of pens from the U.S. embassy in Portugal.

If Republicans take the House after Nov. 2 -- or if the Democrats remain in control, for that matter -- an investigation of our intelligence agencies and their efforts to silence whistleblowers should be undertaken. "Ishmael Jones" and Lt. Col. Shaffer would make excellent witnesses.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The (Toledo) Blade (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1476). More articles by this author
First published on October 24, 2010 at 12:00 am