February 27, 2013

A man left behind - "Zero Dark Thirty" and the Pakistani doctor

Last year, I wrote an article (repeated below) about the inexcusable actions of this Administration by leaving a man behind during the operation that resulted in the death of al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin. No, we did not leave a Navy SEAL behind, but an intelligence asset that was key to the success of the operation - Pakistani physician Dr. Shakil Afridi.

After the recent Academy Awards show, the cast of the movie Zero Dark Thirty publicly called for the doctor's release. They need to direct that call to the President and the Administration which left this man behind. It will take action at that level to put enough pressure on the Pakistani government to release Dr. Afridi. Failure to do so will prolong one of the most shameful actions of this Administration.

Oh, and I do realize that no one in the military says "zero dark thirty." It is, and always has been, "oh dark thirty."

Breaking faith: the CIA and the Pakistani doctor

Pakistani television reporting of 33-year sentence for Dr. Shakil Afridi

It is inexcusable. It is the first and most important lesson case officers are taught at "The Farm"* - you have a moral and professional responsibility to safeguard the security of an asset. Security is the key part of any successful operation - it is the first and last thing you cover with your asset each and every time you meet or communicate. No security means no operation at best, a dead or imprisoned asset at worst.

Somewhere in the operation that led to the killing of al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin, someone forgot that most basic of concepts. A CIA asset, Pakistani physician Shakil Afridi, has just been sentenced by a Pakistani court to more than 33 years in prison for "conspiring against the state." His crime? Working with American intelligence against bin Ladin. Our crime? Allowing him to get caught.

How did this happen? Why was he allowed to remain in Pakistan after the operation? Was there no plan to extract him and his family immediately after the raid? This is basic Agency tradecraft, but in this case, the basics seem to have been ignored.

That said, the use of a local physician to collect DNA samples of residents in the area of Abbottabad under the guise of a vaccination program to verify the presence of bin Ladin was brilliant. It will be a teaching point at The Farm for years to come - as it should be. The case officer who came up with this method was thinking outside the box.

Unfortunately, somewhere up the chain of command, someone dropped the ball on ensuring the safety of the asset. Was Dr. Afridi considered a throwaway? A local source to be sacrificed for the greater good, a small pawn in the larger game of taking down Usamah bin Ladin? If so, this is not the same CIA that I knew. If this is how we treat our assets, why would any potential asset ever agree to work with or for American intelligence agencies again?

What makes this case ever more egregious is that it appears senior Administration officials did not even attempt to protect the doctor's identity. From the press reporting and the Administration spin, I cannot tell how the Pakistanis learned of Dr. Afridi's involvement, but what has come out is troubling.

There were Pakistani press reports, what they call the results of their own investigation - more likely a feed from the Pakistani intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. Plausible, since the ISI can be an effective internal security service.

However, here is where it gets disturbing. Two senior Administration officials made statements to the press about the doctor's identity and the role he played in vetting information that bin Ladin was in Abbottabad.

First was Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Panetta was the CIA director at the time of the bin Laden raid. In January of this year, he appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" and said, "I'm very concerned about what the Pakistanis did with this individual. This was an individual who, in fact, helped provide intelligence ... that was very helpful with regards to this operation. And he was not in any way treasonous toward Pakistan. He was not in any way doing anything that would have undermined Pakistan."

The second official was described as "a senior U.S. official with knowledge of counterterror operations against al-Qa'idah in Pakistan." This official stated, "The doctor was never asked to spy on Pakistan. He was asked only to help locate al-Qa'idah terrorists who threaten Pakistan and the United States. He helped save Pakistani and American lives. His activities were not treasonous, they were heroic and patriotic."

Given the tone and tenor of the statement, I assess that the "senior U.S. official" was none other than White House terrorism advisor John Brennan - it sounds just like him. Either John never attended the tradecraft course at The Farm (Brennan was a reports officer, not a case officer) or he missed the lecture on protecting your intelligence assets. You NEVER reveal the identities, access and most critically, the names of your intelligence assets. Never. The Farm - Rule Number One.

Now what?

Unfortunately, this colossal blunder does not leave the United States with many options to secure Dr. Afridi's release. First, let's disabuse ourselves of the notion that Pakistan is an ally. At best, they are a useful adversary and at worst complicit in the deaths of American troops in Afghanistan. The ISI was embarrassed by the raid and the fact that we have exposed them as either incompetents or complicit liars. I have worked peripherally with the ISI - they are not the former, so I have to go with the latter.

What would I do? I would not have missed the opportunity last week to address Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari while he attended the NATO summit in Chicago on Afghanistan. Rather than snub him as President Obama did, I would have had a private "come to Muhammad" meeting with the president and explained that unless the doctor was pardoned or released via whatever face-saving mechanism Zardari could work out, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan would undergo drastic changes.

First, the American ambassador in Islamabad would be recalled and our diplomatic presence downgraded to the chargé d'affairs level. Then all American financial aid (not the symbolic $33 million cut voted on by the Senate), military parts and supplies for Pakistan's American-built equipment and any military training assistance would be halted. Drone attacks would continue from American bases in Afghanistan, this time without Pakistani coordination. All Pakistani military officers attending courses in the United States would be returned to Pakistan, as would most of the Pakistani embassy staff. None of that would change until Dr. Afridi and family arrive in the United States.

Instead, the State Department tells us that "we have regularly taken up this matter with Pakistan" and will "continue to go forward." Forward? The man, an intelligence asset of the United States intelligence community was just sentenced to 33 years in prison, a virtual death sentence. Absolute drivel. Amateur hour.

Do something. Do it now.

* "The Farm" is the CIA training facility "believed to be located at Camp Peary on the outskirts of Williamsburg, Virginia." Since I was trained at the facility, I can neither confirm nor deny that it is there....