CIA officers in Afghanistan were so eager to meet the spy they believed would help them crack al-Qaida’s leadership they planned a birthday celebration for his visit in December, current and former U.S. officials said.
A birthday cake was waiting.
But before they could even begin to question their golden source, he detonated a powerful bomb, killing himself and seven CIA employees in one of the deadliest attacks in the agency’s history.
Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a 36-year-old doctor who had been recruited by Jordanian intelligence officials, was really a double agent.
The account of the planned birthday gathering is the latest evidence that CIA officials at the Afghan base trusted the Jordanian and wanted to build rapport with him. It was confirmed by current and former officials briefed on the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
The bombing not only weakened U.S. intelligence operations, it touched off a sometimes contentious debate within the close-knit intelligence community about whether such emotions led the CIA to be too lax with its security.
CIA Director Leon Panetta has scoffed at suggestions that security lapses were to blame for the attack. But it remains unclear why there was such a large contingent around al-Balawi when the bomb erupted.
It’s not unusual for CIA officers to offer gestures such as a birthday cake or a small gift for spies they are overseeing, former intelligence officials said. Such gestures lighten the mood and take some of the pressure off. And they tell an informant that he’s important.
“Normally, though, that’s something you do after you’ve established a relationship,” said former CIA and National Security Council official Bruce Riedel, who was not aware of the CIA’s birthday plans for al-Balawi. “It’s not something you do on the first date.”
Such celebrations are typically discreet, small affairs of one or two officers. In this case, many officials were nearby when al-Balawi arrived at the base. Seven were killed and six others were wounded.
In an interview made public after his death, al-Balawi said he knew in advance that he was meeting “an entire CIA team.” He said he had been planning to kidnap or kill his Jordanian intelligence contact, but the chance to take out CIA officers was too tempting.
“We planned for something but got a bigger gift, a gift from Allah, who brought us, through his accompaniment, a valuable prey: Americans, and from the CIA,” al-Balawi said. “That’s when I became certain that the best way to teach Jordanian intelligence and the CIA a lesson is with the martyrdom belt.”
Al-Balawi’s contacts with Jordanian intelligence, one of the CIA’s most trusted partners in the Middle East, gave him credibility. He was thought to have critical intelligence about al-Qaida’s No. 2 official, Ayman al-Zawahri. He was not searched.
Shortly after the attack, Panetta pushed back against criticism that poor spycraft was to blame.
“That’s like saying Marines who die in a firefight brought it upon themselves because they have poor war-fighting skills,” Panetta wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece.
Robert Baer, a former top Middle East CIA operative, heaped criticism on the agency in this month’s GQ magazine. Baer said the top officer at the base “was in over her head” and never should have let so many people meet the source.
“Informants should always be met one-on-one,” Baer wrote. “Always.”
CIA spokesman George Little had harsh words for former employees who criticized the agency from retirement.
“They don’t have all the facts of this case, yet they criticize those who were on the front lines on Dec. 30, including some whose lives were taken. That’s disgraceful,” Little said.
“Informed criticism can be very valuable,” he said. “Some of the junk I’ve seen in the press clearly isn’t.”