January 7, 2010

Did the President really say Al-Qa'idah is "hunkered down?"

In his address to the nation today, President Obama attempted to explain his intelligence and security agencies' compound failures surrounding the Christmas Day failed attack on an airliner flying to the United States.

For the most part, the rhetoric was about what you would expect - order a review, hold people accountable, buck stops here, things will change - the usual words.

What struck me was his description of al-Qa'idah as being "hunkered down" because of his policies. How can he possibly use those words to describe the organization that on December 30 mounted one of the most lethal attacks in on his intelligence service in recent memory?

From "hiding in caves" along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, al-Qa'idah was able to penetrate a covert CIA operation and kill seven of its officers, as well as kill a Jordanian intelligence officer working with the agency. It was a successful operation, one that should indicate that al-Qa'idah is still a capable enemy not to be discounted.

The story of the operation in Afghanistan has been covered fairly well in the media. The Jordanian intelligence services, close partners with their counterpart American services, are extremely professional organizations. The Jordanian effort to penetrate al-Qa'idah was laudable, but flawed. In my past dealings with the Jordanian services, my one (and only) complaint is their use of coercion to effect the recruitment of an asset.

That tactic appears to have happened here as well. According to the family of the Jordanian militant who was "turned" or "doubled" to work against al-Qa'idah was forced by Jordanian intelligence into that decision. At some point in the operation, the asset reverted to his fundamentalist roots and agreed to mount an operation against the Jordanian intelligence officer, and at the same time kill as many CIA officers as possible.

The media has highlighted the fact that the asset passed through security checkpoints and was able to get close to a host of CIA officers during the fatal meeting. It was described as a breach of security. In the CIA officers' defense, this is generally how these things happen. You try to bring a trusted asset into a safe area as quickly and quietly as possible to debrief him for intelligence, task the asset for further collection, and genrally manage the operation. I am a bit surprised at the number of officers present for the meeting. Most of the time, you would expose the asset to the minimum number of officers absolutely necessary for operational security reasons.

The operation against the CIA base in Khost demonstrates real operational skills. It was likely mounted in retaliation for the Obama Administration's escalated unmanned aerial vehicle attacks on targets in Pakistan. Al-Qa'idah was able to identify a target, recruit an asset that had access to that target, and then execute a lethal operation that killed eight of the enemy's key intelligence officers.

All that while "hunkered down?" That characterization is an insult to the memories of our fallen and the fallen officer of a close ally. Do not underestimate this enemy.