Putting the Khost failures in the past could be hard for the Agency. In October, Panetta released a summary of the Agency’s internal “after action” report on the Khost bombing. While it didn’t blame any individual or group, the three-page document revealed misjudgments on the part of Matthews and her colleagues, both at the base and in Washington.
The CIA’s review showed that the Khost informer turned bomber “was not fully vetted and that sufficient security precautions were not taken.” The report’s findings were reaffirmed by an independent review conducted by intelligence heavyweights Charles Allen, a four-decade veteran of the Agency who served from 2007 to 2009 as undersecretary for intelligence and analysis for the Department of Homeland Security, and Thomas Pickering, former US ambassador to the UN.
The CIA’s “missteps,” as Panetta called them in a letter to Agency staff, occurred as a result of “shortcomings” across a range of operations, from communications to management oversight to documentation. Panetta wrote that “the intense determination to accomplish the mission . . . influenced the judgments that were made.”
Read between the lines of that statement and it’s easy to sense concern within the Agency about its need for more and better-prepared agents on the front lines—particularly in positions such as the one held by Matthews. Among 23 recommended changes, the director announced the establishment of a War Zone Board of senior officers to review the organization’s staffing, training, security, and resources in dangerous areas. Counterintelligence officers, who are trained to recognize double agents, will help scrutinize future potential informants. And, Panetta said, the CIA will assemble a “cadre of veteran officers who will lend their expertise to our most critical counterterrorism operations.”
Many of these remedies point to flaws in Matthews’s work and that of her team. “While we cannot eliminate all of the risks involved in fighting a war,” Panetta wrote, “we can and will do a better job of protecting our officers.”
While the CIA can’t take revenge on al-Balawi in the hereafter, it can hunt down the men who sent him to Khost. FOB Chapman has been a hub for the CIA’s drone program. Since the bombing a year ago, the number of drone strikes has risen steadily. In 2010, President Obama more than doubled the number of such attacks from 2009, a year that already had seen more attacks than in George W. Bush’s eight-year presidency.
But the situation on the ground remains volatile. FOB Chapman was almost breached again in August 2010 when attackers wearing US military uniforms and suicide vests stormed the base and another nearby camp. Reports indicate that US forces killed 21 insurgents. As in Khost, the raid was sponsored by the Pakistani Taliban, which has close ties to al-Qaeda. The CIA has pledged not to retreat from Khost—or the region.
A few weeks after that second attack, Panetta flew to Khost to dedicate a plaque that honored the dead. It quotes Isaiah 6:8: “And I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.”
Matthews was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. She is home again, in Virginia. A year later, her death is fixed, like that of so many others who share this resting place, as a moment in history. A Purple Heart recipient is buried to her right, and a veteran of three wars—World War II, Korea, Vietnam—to her left. The white marble stone reveals only the barest essentials of the woman beneath it:
DEC 6 1964
DEC 30 2009
This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.