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CIA Hunts for Answers After Deadly Afghanistan Attack

December 31, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: The director of the Central Intelligence Agency confirmed that seven CIA employees were killed and six others wounded in an attack on a base in Afghanistan yesterday.

A suicide bomber penetrated Camp Chapman in the southeastern Khost district, detonating his vests filled with explosives. The names of those killed have not been released by the CIA. The Associated Press reported that among the dead was the chief of the agency’s host base. She was described as a mother of three.

The attack was one of the worst ever carried out against the CIA. Prior to this, four known agency operatives had been killed in Afghanistan since 2001.

In a message to employees today, CIA Director Leon Panetta said: “Those who fell yesterday were far from home and close to the enemy, doing the hard work that must be done to protect our country from terrorism. We owe them our deepest gratitude.”

The site of the suicide attack is not far from the Pakistan border, one of the areas where the Taliban insurgency is strongest.

Yesterday was also the deadliest day for Canadians in Afghanistan in two-and-a-half years. Four Canadian soldiers and a journalist were killed in a roadside bombing while on patrol in southern Kandahar Province.

BRIG. GEN. DANIEL MENARD, commander of coalition forces, Kandahar: On behalf of all the soldiers, airmen, sailors, and special operators of Joint Task Force Afghanistan, I offer our sincere condolences to the families and friends of our fallen.

JEFFREY BROWN: The reporter, identified as Michelle Lang, was on her first assignment in Afghanistan for The Calgary Herald. The Taliban has claimed responsibility for all of yesterday’s violence and said that the attack against the CIA was carried out by a Taliban sympathizer from the Afghan army. The Afghan Defense Ministry responded that no Afghan soldiers were involved.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the attack in Khost we turn to Joby Warrick, who covers the intelligence community for The Washington Post.

Joby, what’s been learned about how the attack was carried out, how the bomber got on to the base?

JOBY WARRICK: Well, officially, details are coming out very slowly about this incident.

We know that there were early reports about someone wearing a uniform, perhaps a guard or somebody who was on the base, but more information — as we develop more information, it looks like it may have been actually an informant who was invited to come to the base to — as often happens, to provide information to CIA operatives.

And this happens routinely at this base, where people are brought in to be recruited as sources. And this may have been something like that.

RAY SUAREZ: Among the dead, the senior officer at the post, a group of agents, severe injuries among another group of agents. This appears to be someone who knew where to go, who to see, and how to move around this facility.

JOBY WARRICK: Yes. It is very likely that this case, this is somebody that knew where they were going. This is essentially a trap that was set up by the Taliban and their sponsors to try to get at — at what really is the point of the spear for the CIA’s operations in the area.

RAY SUAREZ: Describe the size of the loss. The CIA is a relatively small agency, compared to an Army or a Marine battalion. To lose this many agents at once must be an enormous casualty.

JOBY WARRICK: It’s devastating.

Yes, we are talking about very small numbers of individuals. Sometimes, CIA works in groups of two or three. This was a base that had maybe a few dozen people at most when it’s fully based. But this is essentially like wiping out a battalion for — for a military unit.

And it’s going it to take a very long time to recover from this. It is not just the loss of life, but it’s just sort of the wealth of knowledge these individuals possessed. We’re probably talking maybe 100 years of experience at counterterrorism just among the individuals that were killed in this one incident.

RAY SUAREZ: Camp Chapman was located near the border with Afghanistan — Afghanistan and Pakistan, a very turbulent place in recent months. Any idea why Camp Chapman would be targeted?

JOBY WARRICK: Yes.

It was probably a dream target for the Taliban, because this is a base that also happens to help coordinate the drone strikes, the Predator strikes that we all here about. They don’t actually fly drones from this base, but these guys are involved in the targeting, the surveillance.

They coordinate these strikes. And, so, this is really sort of like the nerve center of these — these operations in the area. So, it really went to the heart of what the CIA is trying to do in the region.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that the agency is unusually quiet. But, today, the director, Leon Panetta, did release some information. What was he able to say about these people and what their mission was, if anything?

JOBY WARRICK: Yes.

It seemed like a very personal message, because this is an agency that has been rocked by problems, by — you know, we have seen the last few weeks questions about whether or not they were, you know, doing a job in trying to prevent terrorist attacks.

They have had a very difficult few months. I think it was a message to try to reach out to them and say, you know, we’re — we’re good patriots. We are putting our lives on the line, and we are doing good work here.

And it seemed to be — sort of boost morale to keep these guys going for the next fight.

RAY SUAREZ: Will we ever know who these people were and what they were doing in southeast Afghanistan?

JOBY WARRICK: In some cases, we probably won’t, because these people work in — often undercover. Their names are confidential. They work in areas where they are very remote. They have very little contact with family members. And most of them are middle-aged and older and do have families back home. And they can’t often talk to them for months at a time.

And, so, these people do a great service for the country. And it’s — and some really will be unsung heroes who will have a star on the walls of the CIA at Langley and perhaps no more publicity than that.

RAY SUAREZ: Joby Warrick of The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

JOBY WARRICK: Thank you.