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Can the CIA still accomplish its mission?

By Charles Faddis, Special to CNN
  • CIA issued report on errors leading to bombing deaths of seven officers in Afghanistan
  • Charles Faddis says the report didn't assess blame or recommend punishment
  • He says the report is an example of an agency that is ill-equipped to fight al Qaeda
  • Faddis: CIA must be transformed -- or replaced

Editor's note: Charles S. Faddis is a retired CIA operations officer and the former head of CIA's WMD terrorism unit. He is the author of several works of nonfiction, including "Beyond Repair," an argument for the creation of a new intelligence agency modeled on the World War II-era OSS.

(CNN) -- On October 19, the Central Intelligence Agency made public the results of the inquiry by its counterintelligence division into the December 30 bombing of its Khost base in Pakistan and the killing of seven Agency officers.

There were two key findings. First, it was established that significant errors in tradecraft were made and that these led to the deaths of the officers in question. That much had been clear for 10 months.

The second determination was more controversial. It was that all of the errors were the result of reasonable decisions by individuals involved in the conduct of the operation.

Accordingly, it was announced that there would be no disciplinary action and that no one connected to the operation would be relieved or reassigned. Rather, lessons learned would be assessed, new procedures implemented and new bureaucratic entities created within the CIA to provide additional insight and layers of review in regard to high-profile and high-risk operations.

As President Obama is fond of saying, let me be clear. Nothing that happened at Khost Base and resulted in the deaths of the officers in question was the product of a reasonable decision.

What happened at the Khost Base was the product of a succession of inexcusable errors:

A chief of base, who was a highly skilled and very talented headquarters staff officer but who lacked any real operational field experience, was sent to command one of the CIA's most dangerous posts.

What happened at the Khost Base was the product of a succession of inexcusable errors.
--Charles S. Faddis

Excessive reliance was placed on the estimations and opinions of a foreign liaison service with which the CIA was cooperating. Multiple layers of command stretching from Kabul to Washington interfered in the running of the case and muddied the waters as to who was in charge of what aspects of the case.

Key tactical decisions such as whether to search a source in a war zone were debated in Amman and Washington rather than being left to the judgment of the commander on the scene.

A clandestine source of uncertain loyalty, in direct contact with members of al Qaeda, was picked up and brought into a secure facility and placed in immediate proximity to virtually the entire complement of a secret CIA base without being searched or subjected to any other measures to screen for weapons or explosives. The source, a Jordanian, detonated explosives, killing himself and seven CIA officers.

The greenest graduate of the Farm, the CIA's training facility, could look at those factors and tell you that they are a prescription for disaster and a good way to get people killed. There is not a case officer worth his or her salt within the CIA today who does not know that what happened at Khost was inexcusable. Anyone who argues to the contrary is either ignorant of the tradecraft used in the conduct of high-risk meetings or deliberately misrepresenting the facts.

Unfortunately, Khost is not an aberration. It is a symptom of what is wrong with the CIA today. It is an organization staffed by thousands of dedicated, patriotic Americans, but it is a broken, dysfunctional entity against which those same Americans must struggle everyday to do their jobs.

Senior leadership is generally poor and focused more on self-preservation and advancement than mission accomplishment. Few, if any, of the senior officers involved in planning the Khost operation have ever conducted the kind of high risk meeting that lead to that debacle. The bureaucracy is stiff, risk-averse and increasingly filled with individuals who see the CIA as simply another federal job rather than the unique and special place it once was.

The Clandestine Service, the core of the CIA, has been de-professionalized and stripped of the elite status it once enjoyed. It is now staffed in large measure not by seasoned overseas operators but by new hires, former support personnel and headquarters-based desk officers.

The solution to all this is not more bureaucracy and more studies. It is not the imposition of requirements for yet more deliberation and review. It is the restoration of standards and accountability. We are in the middle of a war. We cannot afford half measures and dithering. The CIA as it currently exists is not capable of grappling with the kinds of enemies against which we are now engaged. We need to fix that and quickly.

Whether change on the scale it needs to happen can occur within the confines of today's CIA or necessitates the creation of a new organization entirely is a matter for debate. I personally believe that repair is impossible and that replacement is required. Regardless, tinkering and minor adjustment will not get the job done. Reform on a massive scale is necessary.

This president came to office promising change and a fresh, pragmatic look at the problems our nation faces. Nine years after September 11, with Osama bin Laden still at large and in the wake of the Khost Base debacle, it is time to bring that kind of change to the CIA. The fallen deserve no less.

The opinions expressed by this commentary are solely those of Charles S. Faddis.