By Matthew Cole
A senior CIA officer whose operational misjudgment contributed to one of the deadliest days in CIA history was recently assigned to a post with the New York City police department as a result of his mistakes, according to current and former officials.
According to two former officials, the posting marks the most significant sanction handed out for the December 2009 suicide bombing by an al Qaeda double agent at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan that killed seven CIA employees, and acts as an unofficial punishment for the officer's role in the operation. The CIA officer had been one of several high-ranking officials who approved the meeting at which the double agent detonated his bomb.
"The agency sent him to New York for Khost as punishment," said a former senior official briefed on the assignment.
The officer's assignment also comes despite previous statements that the agency found no individual at fault for the attack. Two CIA officers and a Jordanian spy directly involved in working with the double agent were killed. The officer transferred to New York is the lowest ranking of the officers involved in the planning and supervision of the operation.
The CIA official declined a request for an interview. ABC News is withholding his name at the request of the CIA, because his identity is classified as he remains undercover.
The NYPD did not respond to several requests for comment. The CIA refused to comment on the record.
The move highlights how the CIA acts to discipline its most experienced employees for operational mistakes by sidelining them, denying them further foreign postings or senior headquarters slots. The move is seen by many intelligence veterans as punishment because in the CIA foreign postings are considered plum assignments, as are positions within management at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
The officer had been the CIA station chief in Jordan, where the double agent was first recruited by Jordanian intelligence. He had also served previously as the CIA's station chief in Pakistan and Poland, and as chief of the Counter Proliferation Division, the CIA arm that focuses on thwarting nuclear weapons.
The bombing took place on December 30, 2009 at a CIA base called Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. To meet with the CIA handlers, the Jordanian double agent was allowed through three layers of base security without being searched. He hid a suicide vest under his clothing, which he detonated after more than a dozen CIA officers and security personnel assembled inside the base. In addition to the seven CIA employees and the double agent, a Jordanian intelligence officer and an Afghan driver were killed.
According to the current and former officials, the officer was reassigned to New York for a year rather than given any formal administrative punishment.
"This senior officer's assignment is part of a program that gives him an opportunity to observe the best practices, leadership lessons, and management methodology of a large organization also involved in the fight against terrorism," said a U.S. official familiar with the assignment. "Let's face it, this assignment provides a senior officer a unique management experience that fits his background. And, it's in New York City. Trying to call this great opportunity a punishment is completely missing the point."
The posting came after former CIA director and now defense secretary Leon Panetta announced in October 2010 that an internal agency review had found that "responsibility cannot be assigned to any particular individual" for the deadly attack.
A U.S. official described the officer's role in New York as "management training." The intelligence officer already has a civilian rank equivalent to a two-star general and has managed two large stations and a division that employs hundreds.
"It's a non-job," said another former senior official who consults with the NYPD. "It was a job created for him. He was trying to get a senior assignment and they wouldn't give it to him. It was a punishment for not passing the warnings about Balawi back to [CIA] headquarters."
CIA's Role at NYPD
The role of the officer within NYPD has come under scrutiny in recent months. The CIA announced last month that its Inspector General was conducting an inquiry into the relationship between the CIA and the NYPD's Intelligence Division, which was created in response to the 9/11 attacks. The IG investigation was announced after a series of AP articles revealed that the Intelligence Division had developed several programs to gather intelligence about Muslim communities in New York.
The unit is led by a former senior CIA official, David Cohen, the NYPD's deputy commissioner for intelligence. According to two former intelligence officials, Cohen has privately acknowledged that the CIA official was sent to New York as a punitive assignment because of the disaster in Afghanistan.
The senior official penalized for the Khost bombing is the second CIA official to embed with the NYPD. In the years after 9/11, CIA veteran Lawrence Sanchez worked as a liaison between the CIA and the NYPD. However, Sanchez had the title of assistant commissioner for intelligence and oversaw significant portions of the division's operations. The current post has no supervisory authority, according to a former intelligence official.
New York City lawmakers recently pressed police commissioner Raymond Kelly about the CIA officer's role at the NYPD, concerned the CIA might be too active in police investigations. Kelly told council members that the officer did not have access to "any of our investigative files," but that he did supply "technical information" to police officers.
In fact, officials have failed to agree on what exactly the senior CIA officer does for the NYPD. Historically, the CIA station chief in New York has been the liaison between the intelligence agency and the police department. The current station chief in New York is a veteran of counter-terrorism operations.
Double Agent Kills 7 CIA Employees
The officer stands out among his new colleagues in New York because of his long overseas and counter-terrorism experience. But in his most recent position prior to New York, station chief in Jordan, he made the deadly mistake of approving a meeting with a supposed al Qaeda "mole" who turned out to be an al Qaeda double agent.
The agent, a Jordanian doctor named Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, had been recruited by Jordan's intelligence agency. He told the Jordanians he was willing to work for the CIA as a mole in al Qaeda. In 2009 Balawi traveled to Pakistan, where he claimed to have had a meeting with al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.
According to several former intelligence officials, the officer twice overruled a junior officer who warned that Balawi might be working for al Qaeda and needed more assessment before he could be allowed to meet with CIA officers. The CIA station chief told others that the chance to catch Zawahiri was worth taking the risk, and pushed for the Balawi operation to continue. Most critically, the officer failed to report the warnings to CIA superiors at headquarters. CIA supervisors later agreed to Balawi coming to a CIA base for a meeting.
On the day of Balawi's meeting, he traveled from Pakistan to a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan, where he was let through three layers of security without being searched. When the CIA brought a welcoming party out to greet him, he exited a car and detonated a suicide vest. The blast killed seven Americans, a Jordanian, an Afghan, and severely wounded several other CIA employees. It was the single worst day for the CIA since the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, in which eight CIA operatives were among the 64 people who died.
The assignment to New York is not the first time in the officer's career that a scandal affected his choice of assignments. After his turn in Pakistan, the officer was the leading candidate to be chief in Italy, one of the agency's biggest stations. But top CIA officials blocked the move because his brother had been involved in the extraordinary rendition of an Egyptian cleric from Milan in 2003.
The brother, who worked as a surveillance operative, used a traceable cellphone to call his mother in the U.S., according to telephone records and former CIA officials familiar with the operation. An Italian prosecutor later tried and convicted -- in absentia -- several CIA operatives for the rendition. The officer's brother was among those eventually convicted, under the fake name he used while undercover in Italy. Top CIA officials worried that the Italian government would be offended if it discovered that the new station chief was the brother of one of those charged.