A proper examination of the Muslim agent would have been absolutely impossible. It would have been an unacceptable level of “Islamophobia”.
“Former Senior CIA Officer Recalls Double Agent Betrayal,” CBSNews, Dec. 30, 2020 (thanks to The Religion of Peace):
On this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell interviews Marc Polymeropoulos, a former CIA chief intelligence officer who had a 26-year career in the civil service. He looks back on the day that seven service members were killed by suicide bomber Humam al-Balawi, who worked as a double agent. Polymeropoulos talks about why it was important to interview al-Balawi personally, what mistakes were made and what important lessons he still has with him.
… MARC POLYMEROPOULOS:: Balawi was a Jordanian doctor, he came on the radar screen of the Jordanian security services during this time, he was first, like many, involved in chat forums. So he speaks out against the West and praises the martyrdom operations. Because Jordan is a close CT partner of ours in the United States government, we became aware of him too. If you think back, there was nothing special about it. We monitor a lot of people like Balawi, and certainly every Middle East service will monitor its own people for extremist tendencies.
MICHAEL MORELL: What happened to him in January 2009?
MARC POLYMEROPOULOS:: The Jordanians finally arrested him, he crossed the border a bit, guys are monitoring these chats. They look at what they stand up for, you know, violence, but I think he’s crossed the line. So they arrested him and claimed that they then put him in jail. You know, it’s almost seen as prison recruitment, but of course it’s very common in Middle Eastern intelligence circles. You know, for example, the host governments can have a great deal of control over what happens to family members. So it’s not traditional recruitment in the sense that the CIA would run a full cycle of recruiting with a lot of review and a lot of time on target. But it’s not dissimilar to what the Middle East Services are doing, and we at the USG, you’ve never met Balawi. Then they almost send him to Pakistan for an operation. So the Jordanians send him away, we’re in the background. And ultimately, it is an attempt, one of many such attempts, to infiltrate al-Qaeda. But at this time it is an operation that we pay attention to. But nothing that really burns for us until something happens later that we will probably get involved with.
MICHAEL MORELL: We have Marc Polymeropoulos with us today, a former CIA chief operations officer, and he’s with us as part of our latest series on real life espionage stories. Marc, you know, maybe not how the conversations between him and the Jordanians were? I mean, did this recruitment go quickly? Did it take you some time to have conversations with him?
MARC POLYMEROPOULOS:: It was relatively quick. I think there probably weren’t many face-to-face meetings. It was a prison recruitment and then there were a few more meetings after his release and preparation for deployment. In the end it is again something unusual for a ministry in the Middle East, because the belief is always that they have an influence on a person because family members are still present. I mean, we were aware of what the Jordanians were doing. The key wasn’t exactly the nature of these discussions. What would he do if he met South Waziristan?
MICHAEL MORELL: Do you know what he was promised in return for working for the Jordanians? I mean, of course staying out of jail was one, right, but guess what?
MARC POLYMEROPOULOS:: Law. That’s a good question. I think it would be a usual mix of financial incentives and just, you know, staying safe and not going to jail. You know, they appealed to him to have a just patriotism. Again, the Middle Eastern services are not necessarily like us in terms of our ability to toss around a ton of money, and it would be almost as if we used a different type of motivator for recruiting. And a lot has to do with the fact that the family is under duress. It is something that the Middle Eastern services are actually very effective at, especially the Jordanians.
MICHAEL MORELL: So they send him and the idea is for him to break into al-Qaeda, get to know the al-Qaeda people and hopefully be able to share what he’s learned once he’s in the group . Correct?
MARC POLYMEROPOULOS:: Right, so he’s leaving and I think it’s spring 2009 and he’s actually making it to South Waziristan, a hub of Al Qaeda activity. A place where, years later, I spent a lot of time staring at eastern Afghanistan. And so Balawi after months of growing contact with local extremists and terrorists. The Pakistani Taliban invite him to live with them and then he falls off the radar for some time. And again we are very busy with our Jordanian partners and many others in the world of counter-terrorism. At this point we’re just waiting. We know he’s there and we just see if he ever shows up again.
MICHAEL MORELL: Then the Jordanians finally got two messages from him, correct, that were particularly interesting. Can you tell us about this news?
MARC POLYMEROPOULOS:: That’s right, and one of the messages got quite a stir. He’s actually broadcasting a video showing him sitting and in touch next to a senior al-Qaida member near the leadership circles. This was pretty solid evidence. He would have hoped to have won the trust of the common people, including the older al-Qaeda. So in the intelligence business, we always try to validate an asset. They do this based on information they provide and also based on their trustworthiness. This really falls into the latter category. You know you are who you say you are. And so this video was very exciting. There was also a message indicating that Balawi who remembers is a trained doctor and that Balawi may be able to personally treat Zawahiri. So you go again and take what you can call a connection, a source, or a development good, or it’s kind of murky how you would look at Balawi. But ultimately he rises to the top of our interest because he may actually have access to HPT2, and then he seems to provide some information that confirms what we knew about Zawahiri’s health. So this is a big deal again. Remember, the hunt for Zawahiri was vital to the entire nature of the global war on terrorism. And at this point you think that this is the best head start we have had in leading al-Qaeda in years. I look back and remember that we were very excited, we were encouraged. I remember writing an email to a colleague stating that this was the key that would lead us to HPT2. If you look back on it, now look at this with some apprehension. But there was a palpable sense of excitement about this case, especially about these two incoming messages.
MICHAEL MORELL: So it goes from being someone who is just on the radar screen and whom we don’t pay much attention to, suddenly to one of the most important assets we have. How quickly that happened is really interesting. Incidentally, this was the moment of my first interaction with the case. At that point in 2009 I was, as you know Marc, the head of analysis at the CIA. And I visited your rooms, I visited you and your team, and you and your boss, I remember clearing the room. We kicked a lot of people out so it was really just the three of us. And you and your boss told me the whole story about Balawi. I don’t know if you remember it, but I still remember it like it was yesterday …
MARC POLYMEROPOULOS:: Law. In fact, there are several levels of security. When you look back on what happened, it’s pretty remarkable because there wouldn’t be just one search, but actually several along the way. You know, nobody thought this was going to sit down and have a picnic or a barbecue with someone. Not only had we never met, but also someone who was there who, in our opinion, had infiltrated the most dangerous terrorist group in the world. But ultimately security protocols collapsed and he was treated almost like a visiting dignitary. Even today it somehow defies my belief that that happened. Do you know what else can you say? We let go of our guard and how it happened is something I think we will never know. And I say that painfully because I knew all the officers involved. There were first class people on the ground. There was some kind of security team that we had. I would trust my life to this day, with each of these members of the CIA team on the ground. Again several security rings that should have been searched and so on.
MICHAEL MORELL: So it stops, right? He drives up in a car. He’s got a driver and he’s in the back seat and he’s pulling up in a car and a number of officers are waiting for him. He gets out of the car, what happens?
MARC POLYMEROPOULOS:: Right, so again there were several security rings that should have been searched. He was not. He comes to a place where I believe a dozen officers were present at the time. Our security team asked him to get out of the car and they wanted to search him. The problem is, this was way too close to the type of team that was there. And before they could in any way disarm him, he was wearing a suicide vest. It detonated itself and seven of them were killed. I was in this place at the coastal base. In fact, I was there a year later and there were still splinter holes in the steel roof of the car. I slept right there in a guest house, which was certainly difficult for me psychologically. An attempt was made to search it at the last moment, but it was far too late. It should not only have been searched by US personnel, frankly, Afghan personnel in the outer ring of security. That should have been done much earlier and that was kind of normal protocols that for some reason to this day no one can really understand why they were not followed …