Thursday, January 7, 2010

Suicide Bombing Puts a Rare Face on C.I.A.'s Work

The New York Times


January 7, 2010

Suicide Bombing Puts a Rare Face on C.I.A.’s Work


WASHINGTON — In the fall of 2001, as an anguished nation came to grips with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a slender, soft-spoken economics major named Elizabeth Hanson set out to write her senior thesis at Colby College in Maine. Her question was a timely one: How do the world’s three major faith traditions apply economic principles?

Ms. Hanson’s report, “Faithless Heathens: Scriptural Economics of Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” carried a title far more provocative than its contents, said the professor who advised her. But it may have given a hint of her career to come, as an officer for the Central Intelligence Agency specializing in hunting down Islamic extremists.


That career was cut short last week: Ms. Hanson was one of seven Americans killed in a suicide bombing at a C.I.A. base in the remote mountains of Afghanistan.


In the days since the attack, details of the lives of the victims — five men and two women, including two C.I.A. contractors from the firm formerly known as Blackwater — have begun to trickle out, despite the secretive nature of their work. What emerges is a rare public glimpse of a closed society, a peek into one sliver of the spy agency as it operates more than eight years after the C.I.A. was pushed to the front lines of war.


Their deaths were a significant blow to the agency, crippling a team responsible for collecting information about militant networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and plotting missions to kill the networks’ top leaders. And in one sign of how the once male-dominated bastion of the C.I.A. has changed in recent years, the suicide bombing revealed that a woman had been in charge of the base that was attacked, Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost Province.


On Wednesday, the operational leader of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan issued a statement praising the work of the suicide bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, and said that the Khost bombing, which also killed a Jordanian intelligence operative, was revenge for the killings of a number of top militant leaders in C.I.A. drone attacks.


“He detonated his fine, astonishing and well-designed explosive device, which was unseen by the eyes of those who do not believe in the hereafter,” said the statement from the Qaeda leader, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, which was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.


Those who died came from all corners of the United States but were thrown together in one of the most dangerous parts of the world. Several had military backgrounds. One of the fallen C.I.A. employees, a security officer named Scott Roberson, had worked undercover as a narcotics detective in the Atlanta Police Department, according to an obituary, and spent time in Kosovo for the United Nations. Postings on an online memorial site describe a hard-charging motorcyclist with a remarkable recall of episodes of “The Benny Hill Show.”


Another, Harold Brown Jr., was a former Army reservist and father of three who had traveled home from Afghanistan briefly in July to help his family move into a new home in the Northern Virginia suburbs.


Mr. Brown’s mother, Barbara, said in an interview that her son — she had believed he worked for the State Department — had intended to spend a year in Afghanistan, returning home in April. He did not relish the work, she said, and talked little about it.


“The people there just want to live their lives. They’re normal people,” she recalled him saying, adding that he had told her parts of Afghanistan were “just like back in biblical times.”


The base chief, an agency veteran, had traveled to Afghanistan last year as part of the C.I.A.’s effort to augment its ranks in the war zone. After consulting with the C.I.A., The New York Times is withholding some identifying information about the woman. The agency declined to comment about the identities of any of the employees. Some of the names were disclosed by family members. Ms. Hanson’s name was first reported in The Daily Beast, an online magazine.


In a telephone interview, her father, Duane Hanson Jr., said an agency official called several days ago to let him know that his daughter, who he said would have turned 31 next month, had been killed. He knew little of her work, other than that she had been in Afghanistan. “I begged her not to go,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Do you know how dangerous that is? That’s for soldiers.’ ”


The other woman killed, the chief of the Khost base, was, before the Sept. 11 attacks, part of a small cadre of counterterrorism officers focused on the growth of Al Qaeda and charged with finding Osama bin Laden.

Working from a small office near C.I.A. headquarters, the group, known inside the agency as Alec Station, became increasingly alarmed in the summer of 2001 that a major strike was coming. One former officer recalls that the woman had a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Al Qaeda’s top leadership and was so familiar with the different permutations of the leaders’ names that she could take fragments of intelligence and build them into a mosaic of Al Qaeda’s operations.

“She was one of the first people in the agency to tackle Al Qaeda in a serious way,” said the former officer, who, like some others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the victims’ identities remain classified.

Two of the dead, Jeremy Wise, 35, a former member of the Navy Seals from Virginia Beach, Va., and Dane Clark Paresi, 46, of Dupont, Wash., were security officers for Xe Services, the firm formerly known as Blackwater.


The company did not respond to a request for comment about the deaths, but they have been widely reported in local newspapers. The Jeremy Wise Memorial on Facebook had 3,189 fans on Tuesday, filled with recollections of Mr. Wise’s childhood as the son of a doctor in Arkansas; his parents currently live in Hope, Bill Clinton’s hometown.

“RIP, Jeremy Wise, American hero,” one wrote.


The suicide bomber has been identified as a Jordanian double agent who was taken onto the base to meet with American officials who thought he was an informant.


In a message to the C.I.A. work force after the attack, President Obama told agency employees that “your triumphs and even your names may be unknown to your fellow Americans.” And indeed, some relatives and friends of the dead did not seem to know of their agency connections.


Ms. Hanson’s economics professor, Michael Donihue, said he was shocked to discover her career path. At Colby, from which she graduated in 2002, she paired her economics major with a minor in Russian language and literature.

“She was a thoughtful person; she had an intellectual curiosity that I really liked,” Professor Donihue said.


Officials in Afghanistan and Washington said the C.I.A. group in Khost had been particularly aggressive in recent months against the Haqqani network, a militant group that has claimed responsibility for dozens of American deaths in Afghanistan. One NATO official in Afghanistan spoke in stark terms about the attack, saying it had “effectively shut down a key station.”

“These were not people who wrote things down in the computer or in notebooks. It was all in their heads,” he said. The C.I.A. is “pulling in new people from all over the world, but how long will it take to rebuild the networks, to get up to speed? Lots of it is irrecoverable. Lots of it.”


James Risen and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Alissa J. Rubin from Kabul, Afghanistan. Kitty Bennett contributed research.



Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company


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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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