The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA
Joby Warrick. New York: Doubleday, 2011. 272 pp. Prologue. Photos. Maps. Notes. $26.95.
Reviewed by J. Furman Daniel III
On 30 December 2009, an unassuming Jordanian doctor limped out of a car inside the heavily guarded forward-operating base in Khost, Afghanistan. The man, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, was believed to have information regarding the location of al Qaeda’s top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Instead, al-Balawi detonated a suicide bomb, killing seven CIA personnel.
That attack represented one of the largest losses of life and worst intelligence failures in the history of the agency, yet the details of the tragedy remain largely unknown. In his new book, Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA, veteran reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner Joby Warrick recounts the story in a gripping style worthy of the best fiction.
On the broadest level, Warrick describes the evolving efforts to eliminate al Qaeda’s senior leadership and how these efforts inadvertently led to the disaster at Khost. Of particular note is the increased dependence on unmanned aerial vehicles to target jihadist leaders within Pakistan, a strategy that began in the last years of the George W. Bush administration and rapidly escalated under President Barack Obama’s leadership. According to Warrick, those attacks were largely a result of the inability of human intelligence assets to uncover new leads regarding the whereabouts of al Qaeda’s senior leaders and the Pakistani government’s failure to prevent cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.
This inability to establish human intelligence contacts in the jihadist ranks and an increasingly aggressive effort to eliminate senior al-Qaeda leadership proved the very flaws that led to the Khost disaster. From the beginning, many in the intelligence community were wary of al-Balawi, a one-time jihadist blogger turned Jordanian double agent, believing his story was “too good to be true.” Despite widespread doubts that “nothing about the case made sense,” CIA personnel actively pushed for a face-to-face meeting with their potential “golden source.” As the date for the proposed meeting approached, the list of personnel who were to meet with al-Balawi rapidly grew beyond the prescribed numbers for a typical debriefing, further exposing CIA personnel to his final attack.
In the tragically apt words of one of al-Balawi’s victims, Darren LaBonte, the operation suffered from three basic flaws: “There are too many people involved. We’re moving too quickly. We’re giving up too much control by letting Balawi dictate events.”
Warrick is at his best when he uncovers the personal side of this drama. Among the memorable characters to emerge from the narrative are Ali bin Zeid, a cousin of King Abdullah II of Jordan, who first interrogated al-Balawi and recruited him to serve as a double agent; LaBonte, an American CIA officer who developed a close friendship with bin Zeid yet harbored deep misgivings about the details of the operation; Jennifer Matthews, base commander at Khost who volunteered for the dangerous assignment despite her lack of experience working with field agents; Elizabeth Hanson, a beautiful and irreverently funny drone targeter who joined the CIA after 9/11 out of a sense of patriotism and adventure; Scott Robinson, who had served in an undercover drug unit in the Atlanta police before joining the CIA and who, as head of base security at Khost, had argued with his superiors about various security requirements; and Xe Services LLC contractors Harold Brown, Dane Paresi, and Jeremy Wise, who had all previously served in the active-duty military but had become private contractors for personal reasons.
Although Warrick is respectful of the dedication and courage of these military and civilian personnel, he does not hide their flaws. Careerism, inexperience, over-eagerness, and a willingness to break with standard operating procedures caused them all to ignore the warning signs that appear painfully obvious in hindsight. Despite these imperfections, each of the characters is compelling, adding richness and detail to a complex and engaging narrative.
The only obvious defect in this work is that it fails to fully capture and develop the motivations of its main character, al-Balawi. Although Warrick does an admirable job of reconstructing the major events in al-Balawi’s life, the character arc from mild-mannered physician, to jihadist blogger, to Jordanian intelligence asset, and back to suicide bomber seems incomplete and ultimately unconvincing. Warrick highlights al-Balawi’s experiences as a student in Turkey and his humiliation at the hands of Jordanian agents as transformative events in a life filled with contradiction and deception, yet he cannot fully answer the most basic question: Why? Ultimately, the reader is left pondering the meaning of this unlikely conversion and with a seemingly caricatured view of al-Balawi based on limited open-source information.
Despite this (perhaps inevitable) blemish, Warrick’s book is impressive. Readers will be rewarded with both a timely overview of the evolving international efforts to combat al Qaeda as well as an intensely personal story of the people who sacrificed their lives without fanfare or adulation. It is a warning that should not be ignored.
Patriots for Profit: Contractors and the Military in U.S. National Security
Thomas C. Bruneau. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011. 270 pp. Appens. Notes. $24.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Colonel Brian Hanley, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
Thomas C. Bruneau, distinguished professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, is an esteemed authority on civil–military affairs. This most recent book follows Who Guards the Guardians and How: Democratic Civil-Military Relations (2008), a useful collection of essays that Bruneau co-edited. Exhaustively researched, Patriots for Profit takes on what may become the most consequential topic in modern U.S. military affairs: how do we successfully integrate private security contractors (PSCs) into military doctrine and planning? In brief, this is a praiseworthy, ambitious effort let down by a misguided execution.
A striking feature of the book is that its title is inaccurate. For reasons not at all easy to understand, readers aren’t given a substantive survey of private contractors and their role in military operations until the next-to-last chapter. But this is not the most conspicuous weakness of a volume whose intended readers are apparently military officers bound for senior command and staff positions.
One sure-fire way for an author to make certain a particular book goes unread by military professionals is to festoon it with abstractions, such as “formative impact on actors,” “congruent preference formation,” or “frictionless self-coordination.” So densely populated is much of this text by such sterile expressions that one is left to wonder who the intended readership might be. It’s difficult to imagine field-grade military officers—men and women who have learned to transact business rapidly—spending time reconciling the academic argot here with battlefield experience and the practical demands of military life.
A similar liability is the discussion of civilian control of the military and defense reform. These subjects have been analyzed in exacting detail; what’s not needed is another, redundant, survey.
Even so, Patriots for Profit—when it gets around to its titular subject—is at the very least instructive and perhaps indispensable. The penultimate chapter, “An Assessment of the Performance of the Private Security Contractors,” could work as a stand-alone piece in an issue of Joint Force Quarterly. It should be included in the curriculum of the various joint professional military education courses.
Bruneau persuasively makes two points that must be addressed if we are to avoid strategic paralysis: we need to formulate doctrine for how we use personal security contractors, and their employment must be carefully integrated into military planning, as well as budgeting, processes.
What Bruneau writes here should be debated at the highest levels:
The contractors, even if they are equal in number to uniformed military personnel in the theater, are not integrated into a plan or within military planning processes and structures. . . . Blackwater USA, which became probably the most infamous PSC in Iraq in the course of its security work for various U.S. non-DOD departments and agencies, was never integrated into planning or even coordinated [with by theater commanders].
He further points out that contract managers worked from the continental United States; they were never required to deploy to theater, where they would have been in the best position to monitor and evaluate performance. This was, in a perverse way, by design. The U.S. Army, as a result of “transformation” policy, eliminated general-officer billets for contracting officers, the result of which was that when executive military experience might have been most useful, there was none to be had. Worse, as Bruneau writes, DOD “contracted out extensively” oversight authority for PSC work. This is a recipe for authority divorced from responsibility.
In sum, Patriots for Profit is by no means an easy read for military commanders and their staffs. Nevertheless, Bruneau’s observations are critical to national security. His work, notwithstanding flaws in presentation and manner of expression, should be thoroughly discussed and, let us hope, acted on.
Keep From All Thoughtful Men: How U.S. Economists Won World War II
Jim Lacey. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011. 266 pp. Appens. Notes. Bibliog. Index. $34.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Eric Schuck, SC, U.S. Navy Reserve
The closing paragraph of John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money includes a telling quote: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slave of some defunct economist.” For economists this admonition is something of a battle cry, a reminder that often the struggle in economic policy is more against outmoded but perniciously persistent ideas than anything else. Jim Lacey’s Keep From All Thoughtful Men is the story of just such a fight, a recounting of how two now-long-dead (but not defunct) economists helped forge the singular victory that was U.S. production during World War II. And he recounts, too, the price they paid for their success.
Their names were Simon Kuznets and Robert Nathan. Kuznets is anything but forgotten in the economics profession. He was, after all, the third recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, which he received in 1971. But the roles he and his former student Robert Nathan played on the War Production Board (WPB) during World War II are relatively unknown both inside and outside their profession. This is a pity, for as the book recounts, their contributions in showing what was—and more critically, was not—economically feasible were central to U.S. strategic planning and played a crucial part not only in completely revising U.S. production schedules but specifically affected the timing of Operation Overlord. The indispensable role of these two academicians in setting public policy was an excellent example of the way ivory tower knowledge can help manage the forges of war.
Lacey begins with the popular myth that American production planning was determined by Lieutenant General Albert Coady Wedemeyer and the so-called “Victory Plan.” He summarily dispatches Wedemeyer’s erroneous and often self-serving reputation as the father of wartime industrial planning by explaining the function of another economist, Stacy May, in assessing global matériel demands. He then shifts to lay out the evolution of civilian wartime production management. Two elements are key to this discussion: the ability of the economy to pay for and to produce for the war.
Lacey’s presentation of war finance focuses primarily on money creation and the capacity of the banking system to create and to absorb debt. This is in keeping with American economics historian Robert Higgs’ recent work on wartime public finance, but it overlooks the important element of taxation and price controls in restraining the potentially inflationary pressures of monetarizing the war debt. But while professional economists may find this section lacking some technical details, Lacey’s readable explanation of how financing the war was not a binding strategic constraint is to be commended. He sets the stage for the discussion of production feasibility, which was a binding limit on wartime strategy.
Explaining the actual production problem requires first laying out the bureaucratic institutions President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration used to manage U.S. factories. Lacey’s summary of the chaotic origins of the WPB will serve the general reader well. Yet it is the discussion of the board’s production committee as an economic forecasting unit that truly distinguishes his book from other analyses of wartime logistics. In late 1942, Kuznets, under Nathan’s direction, used the new concept of Gross National Product to warn that existing production schedules promulgated by the respective service chiefs were infeasible. By conclusively demonstrating that existing expectations of munitions production (particularly the Army’s) created demands that either could not be met or could only be met at a later date, the pair slowed overly optimistic operational timelines and brought strategic planning into line with the actual capabilities of the economy.
Synchronizing wartime operational planning with production schedules was perhaps the WPB’s single greatest contribution to success in World War II, and Lacey brings it to light in his frequently riveting narrative. Kuznets’ feasibility study, despite being nearly quashed by the head of the U.S. Army Services of Supply, General Brehon Somervell, clearly influenced General George Marshall’s operational planning and particularly his scheduling of the invasion of Western Europe. That a technical report written by two nonmilitary academicians played such a profound role in operational planning is almost inconceivable today, and yet it is, as Lacey notes, true.
That the story is so little known, even within the discipline of economics, is a testimony to the price Kuznets and Nathan paid for their prescience. In a bitter tribute to the scorched-earth nature of bureaucratic warfare, Somervell marshaled the forces of the War Department against the two men, eventually succeeding in reorganizing the WPB in a way that pushed Kuznets back to the National Bureau of Economic Research and Nathan, surprisingly, into the Army. Once removed from the WPB, their influence and accomplishments were largely scrubbed from the record.
But they are forgotten no more. Lacey has restored them to their rightful place in the history of World War II as true heroes of production management and reemphasized the vital role economics plays in strategic logistics. Keep From All Thoughtful Men should be required reading for both academic economists and senior military leadership as a solid reminder of why knowledge of economics is crucial to success in war.