The Best Defense

Joby Warrick's 'Triple Agent'

Joby Warrick, who used to sit next to me at the Washington Post, has a new book out on the guy who killed a bunch of CIA operatives in Afghanistan in December 2009. Here is a short interview I did with him about The Triple Agent.

Best Defense: There have been a ton of books on intelligence and al Qaeda over the last several years. What makes yours different? Why should a hard-working stiff (or one of the many readers of this blog currently deployed to Afghanistan) pay to download it?

Joby Warrick: Triple Agent is a different kind of read because it is, at its core, a pure narrative, the story of an intelligence operation that unfolds over the course of a year and then goes badly wrong. There's a lot of "news" in the book, including an account of drone warfare that is as detailed, in my humble opinion, as any in the open-source arena. But the reader is pulled along by a story that is populated by unforgettable -- but very real -- characters and races to its tragic climax. For those who closely follow CT, this review by the Brookings Institute's Ben Wittes wonderfully distills what the book seeks to achieve: a penetrating and informative reconstruction of a flawed intelligence operation that, to use Ben's words, "bristles with the energy of a thriller."

BD: Did your research make you more or less pessimistic about the Afghan war?

JW: I became less pessimistic about the prospects for defeating "core" al-Qaeda in the Af-Pak region. The CIA's drone campaign is extraordinarily effective, and the agency is getting progressively better at targeting senior leaders and disrupting their networks. On the other hand, my view of the war itself has not changed substantially. After spending time in the east and meeting with ordinary Afghans there, it's hard to imagine how a future Afghan government will retain control of provinces such as Khost or Paktia once U.S. forces are gone.

BD: What has been the unofficial reaction of CIA types to the book?

JW: I've had wonderful response from individual CIA officers, including some who served at Khost and were present on the day of the bombing. Many said they appreciated the book's straight-ahead approach in telling the story, and the fact that, while pointing out fatal mistakes that led to the bombing, the book is respectful of ordinary men and women who served at Khost and worked under extraordinarily challenging circumstances.

BD: How do you think the CIA should change?

JW: After the bombing, the CIA owned up to what then-director Leon Panetta described as "systemic" failures that contributed to the great loss of life on Dec. 30, 2009. A key failure was an insufficient focus on counterintelligence, which is an even tougher challenge at a time when the intelligence agencies and operatives are strained by multiple rotations and a decade of warfare. There also were mistakes that uniquely reflect the circumstances and individuals at Khost. The CIA has implemented numerous reforms, but a challenge for the agency is how to ensure proper attention and follow-through, given the relative lack of transparency and oversight.

BD: What is the one question you'd like to answer about the book that nobody has asked you?

JW: Some of the events in the book have never been described elsewhere, and I've been surprised that few reviewers or interviewers have asked about them. One favorite: a description in the book of a dirty-bomb threat that emanated from Pakistan mid-2009 and raised alarms at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Information gleaned through SIGINT intercepts suggested strongly that the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) had acquired "nuclear" material-presumably radioactive sources useable in a dirty bomb--and were trying to decide what to do with it. Concerns over a possible dirty-bomb attack directly factored into the decision to take out TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike on Aug. 5 of that year. No radioactive material was subsequently found, and to this day, no one knows what happened to it, or indeed, whether it ever existed.


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