In strike aviation, especially in the old days, before smart weapons made the task of identifying and destroying hard targets easier, a principal risk to the striker was a phenomenon known as “target fixation.” This typically involved a low altitude attack which took advantage of direct and indirect terrain masking to approach a target, followed by a pop up to identify the target and a shallow dive to employ upon it.
There would be a desperate few moments when the striker was on his back in a hostile environment, seeking the target and growingly aware of his exposure to a variety of threats – one of the problems of being within gun range is that the enemy is too – and then a sense of exultation as the target is acquired and the weapons run begins. That was where target fixation could creep in: A striker might press the run too close, and place himself within the frag pattern of his own ordnance, or worse, hit the target with his own airplane (typically a little long).
On December 30th 2009, a team of CIA operatives and support contractors had a valuable target in their sights, a doctor recently “flipped” by the Jordanian intelligence service who was to be their first “man inside al Qaeda.” Strong evidence exists that the team’s leadership was so preoccupied with the value of this potential asset that the risks of meeting him with open arms were not adequately managed.
The doctor, Humam Khalilil al-Balawi, detonated an explosive vest in the presence of the CIA team, killing seven of them and wounding several others. It was a cruel blow to the nation’s clandestine service, and to the families left behind. The team’s leader, Jennifer Matthews, left behind a gold star on the wall at Langley, along with a husband and three young children back in the States.
And right about then the finger pointing began. Yesterday’s Washington Post had an article about Matthews. It’s a little long on the “God would protect her” theme, which I’m sure sends the correct message to many of the Post‘s readers. But it doesn’t much touch on the issue of training an analyst to be an operative and to lead a clandestine mission in a war zone.
To get that, you’ve got to go back and read Robert Baer’s 2010 article in GQ magazine – since Matthews name had not yet been released, Baer uses the pseudonym “Kathy”:
The base chief is a covert employee of the CIA; her identity is protected by law. I’ll call her Kathy. She was 45 years old and a divorced mother of three. She’d spent the vast majority of her career at a desk in Northern Virginia, where she studied Al Qaeda for more than a decade. Michael Scheuer, her first boss in Alec Station, the CIA unit that tracked bin Laden, told me she had attended the operative’s basic training course at the Farm, the agency’s training facility, and that he considered her a good, smart officer. Another officer who knew her told me that despite her training at the Farm, she was always slotted to be a reports officer, someone who edits reports coming in from the field. She was never intended to meet and debrief informants.
Kathy knew that there was a time when only seasoned field operatives were put in charge of places like Khost. Not only would an operative need to have distinguished himself at the Farm; he would’ve run informants in the field for five years or more before earning such a post. He probably would have done at least one previous tour in a war zone, too. And he would have known the local language, in this case Pashto. Kathy skipped all of this. Imagine a Marine going straight from Parris Island to taking command of a combat battalion in the middle of a war.
The history books are full of stories of people being placed in positions of leadership that they weren’t prepared for. Some have even succeeded, but a war zone is a harsh testing environment.
Some of the comments to Baer’s article are illuminating as well, coming as they seem to do from knowledgeable insiders:
No one wants to be the person to speak ill of the dead. The truth, however, must trump sensibilities in this matter for a number of reasons, first and foremost being that of using this catastrophic incident as a case study in how not to conduct operations in espionage. This horrible blunder was at once both easily predictable and preventable. I cannot think of one principle of security that was not violated here. Violations fommented out of the apparent incompetence, obvious arrogance, blind ambition and elitism of “Kathy.” Having been warned repeatedly, constantly, continuously concerning suspicious developments in the days leading up to the “meet”, Kathy was stubbornly and arrogantly dismissive of sound wisdom, counsel and warning. She marginalized and widely disregarded those who were there to conduct and advise her on ground tactical operations. The proof of this is that none were present at the “welcoming party” because they knew that it was not tactically sound, hence no “knuckle draggers” were killed or maimed; they just had to clean up the mess, which they did in the magnificent fashion that is their consistent calling card. Kathy was a very insecure person, an elitist who felt the constant need to remind everyone that she was a Harvard graduate, an indicator in and of itself.
A case study indeed, if “Bulldog861974″ has the story right. One wonders if the Agency has learned from it.
“And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”