In the afternoon of December 30, 2009, a meek Jordanian doctor who had gained access to the top commanders of Al Qaida was driven on to a secret CIA base at Khost in eastern Afghanistan for his first formal debriefing. More than a dozen CIA officers and other Americans stood in a receiving line to welcome the so-called "golden source".
Until then, no American had ever met the star informant and only a handful even knew his name: Humam Al Balawi. But he was deemed so pivotal to America's war on Al Qaida that back in Washington, President Obama had been notified and was awaiting news of the meeting. Balawi instead detonated a powerful bomb sewn into his vest. The explosion killed seven CIA officers, a Jordanian intelligence officer who was a member of the royal family, a CIA-trained Afghan driver and the suicide bomber himself.
Who was the seemingly mild-mannered doctor and why was he escorted to a fortified CIA base inside a US military compound without being searched? Why were so many CIA officers waiting for him? Why did events go so tragically wrong?
Joby Warrick largely answers those questions in The Triple Agent, a disturbing narrative of the events leading to that awful day.
Warrick is a brilliant reporter and a fine writer. If newspapers are the first draft of history, he has written a compelling and complete second draft in surprisingly short order. This is as gripping a true-life spy saga as I have read in years. Still, at just more than 200 pages, the book comes off at times as a hurried snapshot more than a nuanced portrait.
There is too little context or history and several minor errors. The sometimes breathless prose and repetitive passages don't help. But there are jewels here, including startling claims about the CIA's covert drone war in Pakistan. "The agency's Predators could put a missile through the window of a moving car or nail a target the size of a dinner plate in a narrow alley at night without harming buildings on either side," Warrick writes. "The aircraft's operators could — and, on at least one occasion did — change a missile's trajectory in midflight to avoid an unintended target that suddenly wandered into its path."
Inevitably, the main characters are troubled. The CIA base chief, Jessica Matthews, had spent only three months in Afghanistan. She was a hard-charging Al Qaida expert back home and played a role in the water-boarding of a terror suspect. But she had never served in a war zone, run a surveillance operation or handled an informant. And she was desperate to erase a stain on her record: An internal report had named her as one of the CIA managers who bore responsibility for bungling intelligence before the September 11 attacks.
Balawi secretly penned anti-American screeds on jihadist websites under a nom de guerre, Abu Dujana Al Kurorasani. Arrested by Jordanian intelligence in early 2009, he abruptly switched sides.He offered to go to the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan to help the CIA penetrate Al Qaida. He would become a double agent. Balawi soon sent his Jordanian handler a short but remarkable video file. It showed him meeting an Islamic scholar who was one of Osama Bin Laden's closest associates.
Weeks later, the doctor sent word that he had a new medical patient: Ayman Al Zawahiri, then Bin Laden's top deputy and today his successor as chief of Al Qaida. At the CIA, which has struggled to infiltrate Al Qaida, the grainy video was "one hundred megabytes of flash and sizzle", Warrick writes. But news that a mole was in contact with Al Zawahiri, the terrorist leader who had helped dream up the September 11 attacks, was rushed to the White House.
It was, sadly, too good to be true. Balawi had no training as a spy and had not been vetted as an informant. The two intelligence officers who knew him best — his Jordanian handler and the CIA case officer — both expressed doubts. They were right: Balawi had become a triple agent. He had offered his services to Al Qaida and they would use him as revenge for the CIA drone attacks and he delivered his final message in English to ensure the widest audience. "We will get you, CIA team," he vowed. "This is my goal: to kill you."
After the bombing, an internal CIA investigation concluded that no single US intelligence officer was to blame. But just as in the September 11 attacks, "managers at every level were blinded to warnings and problems that would seem obvious in hindsight", Warrick writes. The problem was "the eagerness of spies who saw a mirage and wanted it to be real".
Shaikh Saeed Al Masri, who had organised Balawi's suicide mission, was more precise. In an internet posting, he called Al Qaida's penetration of a guarded CIA base a model of "patience, good planning and management".Unfortunately, Warrick makes clear, that was where the CIA failed when they waited in line to greet Balawi.