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Silent Stars
Comments () | Published December 17, 2010

The death of an officer has always been a private matter for the CIA. In Matthews’s case, there seems to be more than the usual number of reasons for discussing it as little as possible. Her early training as an analyst, some say, suited her for a desk job in Langley. But it’s not clear that it prepared her to identify the mistakes that ended up killing her.

In the CIA, there are analysts and there are field operatives. Their trades overlap, but their cultures have historically been distinct.

Robert Baer, an ex–CIA case officer who served in the Middle East, says assigning an analyst to the base-chief job is like putting a hospital administrator in charge of surgery. “We all bite off things we shouldn’t,” Baer says. “Matthews shouldn’t have been there. She didn’t speak the language. She didn’t know the country.”

Other former officers echo this view quietly, over dinner or cocktails, but won’t be quoted.

Forward Operating Base Chapman—named for Sergeant First Class Nathan Chapman, the first US soldier killed in combat in Afghanistan—sits on a dusty scrub of land near the mountains that divide Afghanistan and Pakistan. FOB Chapman has been a critical staging area for the CIA’s war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It’s a hub for intelligence gathering, a place where operatives collect leads on militants in two unstable nations and mount missions to kill their leaders, often using remote-piloted drones.

Its residents don’t take strolls around the compound to catch a breeze or enjoy the sunshine, and they wouldn’t wander outside the multiple security perimeters. It’s not the kind of place where a working mother could live with her school-age children. It’s the kind of place where everyone walks around in Kevlar vests.

“It has that sense of a scene out of Gunsmoke,” Townsend says. “You can’t think of this like a military post in the traditional sense.”

Matthews and her team determined that the Jordanian informant, Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a physician by training, was poised to provide details that could help US officials infiltrate al-Qaeda. Al-Balawi claimed to have met with al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s number two. The CIA had been working for years to develop this kind of inside intelligence. His revelations could have helped turn the tide of a war against an amorphous enemy that has shown a relentless appetite for American death and destruction.

“You had visions of sugarplums and promotions dancing in everybody’s heads,” says Fred Burton, former deputy chief of the counterterrorism division of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service. “If I pull this off,” Burton says Matthews and her colleagues must have surmised, “my career can be made.”

The CIA officers at Khost were far from home. Perhaps that’s why they relied so heavily on the CIA’s allies in the region, and one in particular, to help them vet potential new spies. Much of that work was done by the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID). Those who know how relationships work in the interwoven global intelligence community say there’s perhaps no closer bond than that between the CIA and the GID. And al-Balawi had the GID’s seal of approval.

“You have a very special relationship with certain countries: the Brits, the Aussies, the Canadians, the Jordanians, the Israelis,” Burton says. “And if they’re going to vouch that this asset they’re bringing to you is good, you’re going to take that for granted.”

In Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, the author describes a December 2008 briefing that Michael Hayden, then the CIA chief, gave President Obama, in which Hayden cavalierly suggested that there are foreign intelligence operations that ultimately serve as de facto US entities. Woodward writes: “Hayden said the CIA pumped tens of millions of dollars into a number of foreign intelligence services, such as the Jordanian General Intelligence Department, which he said the CIA also ‘owned.’ ”

Matthews and her team leaned heavily on the GID in determining al-Balawi’s abilities to provide intelligence about al-Qaeda. He had been a radical who blogged on a jihadist site. The Jordanians took him in, and with extensive coaxing they turned him. Or so they thought.

“The Jordanians had been under intense American pressure to infiltrate al-Qaeda, and Balawi was the best they could do,” says Robert Baer, who wrote about the Khost bombing for GQ magazine in April.

The Americans wanted to meet al-Balawi, but the logistics were a challenge. They couldn’t go to him, to the often impassable regions lorded over by the Taliban. So the CIA decided to bring al-Balawi to them and to use the Jordanians to facilitate the meeting. In a sign of the high expectations for it, the White House was briefed in advance, according to Baer.

Burton says the meeting was the culmination of “a perfect storm of catastrophes.” The first failure point was deference to the Jordanians. If the US government and the CIA wanted to host the al-Balawi meeting, they should have managed the circumstances with more authority, Burton says.

The second failure was in not screening al-Balawi when he entered FOB Chapman. In a war zone, trust should never be assumed—not even, Burton adds, when a close friend and ally with the best of intentions gives the go-ahead: “There should have been some sort of physical search by somebody of this informant”—a pat-down or a pass through a metal detector.

A third mistake, as evidenced by the outcome of the day, was to have so many people greet al-Balawi. Who decided that it was a fine idea to welcome a onetime radical jihadist with a full band of American spies and contractors? And, as some reports indicated, with a birthday cake.

If al-Balawi was who he said he was and his intentions were pure, no one wanted to risk alienating him by giving him a physical once-over. But Baer says the failure to be more skeptical was inexcusable—and a sign of a CIA team in Khost without proper field training. “It was complete sacrilege,” he says.

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