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Leon Panetta on the CIA

Leon Panetta

Leon Panetta

CIA Director Leon Paneta has an op ed in Sunday’s Washington Post. He writes:

The horrible news Dec. 30 that a suicide bomber had taken seven American lives in Afghanistan may have been for some a stark reminder that we are at war. But the men and women of the CIA, whose colleagues these seven were, needed no reminder.

The main lesson from this attack is that, like our military, CIA officers are on the front lines against al-Qaeda and its violent allies. They take risks to confront the enemy, gathering information to destroy its networks and disrupt its operations. This is a vicious foe, one that has struck our country before and is determined to do so again.

As an agency, we have found consolation in the strength and heroism of our fallen colleagues and their families.

We have found no consolation, however, in public commentary suggesting that those who gave their lives somehow brought it upon themselves because of “poor tradecraft.” That’s like saying Marines who die in a firefight brought it upon themselves because they have poor war-fighting skills.

This was not a question of trusting a potential intelligence asset, even one who had provided information that we could verify independently. It is never that simple, and no one ignored the hazards. The individual was about to be searched by our security officers — a distance away from other intelligence personnel — when he set off his explosives.

Our officers were engaged in an important mission in a dangerous part of the world. They brought to that mission their skills, expertise and willingness to take risks. That’s how we succeed at what we do. And sometimes in a war, that comes at a very high price.

The CIA cannot speak publicly about its major victories — the plots foiled, the terrorists neutralized. In the past year, we have done exceptionally heavy damage to al-Qaeda and its associates. That’s why the extremists hit back. And it is all the more reason why we intend to stay on the offensive.

The safety of our officers is critical. If we find lessons from Forward Operating Base Chapman that will make us even stronger in what will always be a deadly battle, we will, of course, apply them. But let’s be clear: When you are fighting terrorists, there will be risks.

We constantly adapt and refine the tools we use to accomplish what is, under the best circumstances, an exceptionally complex and difficult mission. No one should mistake the remote spots of South Asia for the capitals of Cold War Europe. In a very different environment, against a very different enemy, our tradecraft is tailored to a battlefield. In the barren landscape outside Khost, Afghanistan, things such as “safe” houses — a staple of traditional espionage — are not easily found.

Our focus now is on these seven American heroes and those wounded beside them. They knew the value of their work against terrorism and did it with talent, energy and a full appreciation of the risks involved. In the days since this tragedy, many family members have told me that, in Afghanistan, their loved ones were where they wanted to be. They were no strangers to hardship. If the CIA was not in that rugged outpost and many more like it, obtaining information that could save American lives, the agency would not be doing its job.

On the day our fallen returned to Dover Air Force Base on their long journey home, the CIA’s senior staff meeting began with a moment of silence. It was followed by a powerful commitment to continue our aggressive counterterrorism operations. We do more than mourn those taken from us. We honor them, in part by pushing forward the work they did, work to which they were absolutely devoted. Their colleagues form a deep bench of expertise and courage, and they are committed to playing their vital role in this war we must win.

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  • Lex Pro says:

    L. Panetta: “This was not a question of trusting a potential intelligence asset, even one who had provided information that we could verify independently. It is never that simple, and no one ignored the hazards. The individual was about to be searched by our security officers — a distance away from other intelligence personnel — when he set off his explosives.” Apparently another case of “the system worked.” It did not. Given the chance to do it again, surely it would be done differently. The CIA is indeed on the front lines of protecting we who are safe at home. They are heroes of the first order. Mr. Panetta’s statement, taken at face value, insults the intelligence of anyone, friend or foe who reads it. Friends hear arrogance and despair of a repeat, foes hear ignorance and opportunity for a repeat. One hopes there is an unstated motive and objective for what he said.

    • William "Chris" Yount says:


      I understand your frustration, but I think you are being too harsh with your criticism. I don’t think that Panetta’s statement was tantamount “the system worked”. According to the latest release from STRATFOR:

      As Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi exited the vehicle that brought him onto Forward Operating Base (FOB) Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, 2009, security guards noticed he was behaving strangely. They moved toward al-Balawi and screamed demands that he take his hand out of his pocket, but instead of complying with the officers’ commands, al-Balawi detonated the suicide device he was wearing. The explosion killed al-Balawi, three security contractors, four CIA officers and the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID) officer who was al-Balawi’s handler. The vehicle shielded several other CIA officers at the scene from the blast. The CIA officers killed included the chief of the base at Khost and an analyst from headquarters who reportedly was the agency’s foremost expert on al Qaeda. The agency’s second-ranking officer in Afghanistan was allegedly among the officers who survived.

      An intelligence source can’t generally be searched when he’s picked up for a report, as that would seem pretty suspicious and likely violate operational security. You could argue, I guess, that he should have been taken to a secure location to be searched before being taken to the base, but as Director Pinetta says, safehouses aren’t on every street corner when you’re talking about AfPak. He also says that they will learn from the lessons.

      This release is an acknowledgment of the risks intelligence agents face on the front lines, the inherent risks of those operations and a confrontation of the suggestion that this attack was a result of a lack of some obvious security procedures. I believe there is an unstated motive, and that’s to show the officers and analysts of the Agency that the Director is going to back you up against the attacks from the media. It’s an important message, too, both for him to say and for them to hear.

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.