The Triple Agent Joby Warrick on the drone phase of the war on terrorism
HH: The United States is in a very hot war, though it’s only one dimly perceived, if at all, by the vast majority of Americans. Last night, I hosted a screening of the new movie, Act Of Valor, which stars Navy SEALs on active duty for a couple of hundred people who were just stunned and moved by the depictions of how the war is actually waged by the real warriors at the tip of the spear. And then I went home and finished an amazing book, The Triple Agent: The al Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated The CIA, which is about a different set of heroes at the front line of this war. And I’m very pleased on the day when that group of warriors killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, to welcome Joby Warrick, who is the national security correspondent of the Washington Post, and the author of The Triple Agent, to the program. Joby, welcome, it’s great to have you.
JW: It’s a real pleasure, Hugh, glad to be with you.
HH: Well, I’ve got to tell you, a couple of weeks ago, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer was in my studio, and I gave him a copy of The Looming Tower, and I said it was the indispensable book. And if I had had a copy of The Triple Agent at that point, I would have given him this one as well, because this is really the only other book I know that gets deep into the al Qaeda of the day. How in the world did you get the government to cooperate? You had to have sources at the very top of the government to write this, Joby.
JW: It was an amazing adventure for me. To start with, I was covering the intelligence community at the time. I was the chief CIA reporter before I went away on book leave, and was covering the story from the, literally from the first hours that the news flashed over here that this had happened, and ended up just getting deeply interested from the very beginning, and almost, I guess you could say, obsessed with how this could have happened. And I had an obsession that was really shared by so many people in Washington who knew about the case, who knew about how this stuff is supposed to work, and were just flabbergasted and appalled, and were just filled with questions as I was about what could have gone so wrong. And so this became a matter of trying to piece together that very complicated mystery, and also learning a lot about how we do this counterterrorism job, you know, from start to scratch.
HH: The Triple Agent is actually one of the most moving and deeply sad, also very inspirational books I’ve ever read. And I’m wondering if you have heard from other readers that they also have this emotional reaction to it.
JW: Well, I have to say, you just really put me in some amazing company, because I’m a huge fan of Lawrence Wright’s book, which I think is just seminal, and one of the greatest pieces that’s ever been done on the subject. But what has been wonderful to me is that I have gotten an amazing response from people, including those who just read it as purely a spy story, which you can do. I think it’s a very interesting and engaging spy story that really happened, and it was very recently. But also from government, people at all levels of Washington who have encountered this book, have had really positive reactions. And I think the most rewarding, to me, has been from people who were in the agency, and know these details very well, and think it really does a good job of sort of telling the story and telling some of the larger issues as well.
HH: I think that’s one of the reasons that I was so impacted by it, because I’ve known a lot of agency people. They were cold warriors. They were…when I was in the Reagan years, I knew some of the people who were deeply involved in some of the things that were going on, and the sacrifices they made, and no one talked about it. But this is a different order of book, and so I want to walk through it. But I want to begin on Page 18, when outgoing CIA General Mike Hayden says to Leon Panetta, “You will be making decisions that will absolutely surprise you.” Do you think Panetta had any glimpse of what was ahead of him, up to and including, I don’t know if he had a role in today’s killing in Yemen. It sounds like it was a CIA operation. But clearly, until he left for the DOD, he was making life and death decisions almost weekly.
JW: Yeah, I have a feeling Leon Panetta is clucking to himself right now about this al-Awlaki victory, because it’s something that they have been working very long and diligently toward. But I think it was a surprise, because someone like Panetta, who had not come from an intelligence background, and who like the rest of us gets only limited glimpses of how this war is being fought, it’s really remarkable. We have a CIA that people think of as being a killing machine and doing all these dirty things around the world. But it’s never had a role like this, where it is really the front line military unit in a war against a very sophisticated and powerful enemy, al Qaeda. And they’re making these life and death decisions every day. And the man that sits in the front office at Langley, at CIA headquarters, has to literally sign off on these decisions about killing somebody halfway around the world.
HH: Let me ask you about Hayden. He comes back less than a year after he turns over power at the CIA. He is at the CIA on December 30th, 2009, which is the day of the central event in The Triple Agent. And it’s an amazing portrait when this horrific loss of life of CIA personnel occurs. And you record that he leaves the building after a long day, and he weeps in his car. Now obviously, that’s a detail only he could have told you of, and not one about which he is in the least bit hesitant or ashamed. I don’t think it could have been otherwise. But I’m glad he talked to you, but I’m also surprised that General Hayden was willing to do so.
JW: If you’ll note in the…you know, things are very carefully couched in the book, and with good reasons, because some of these individuals who were very proud of what they did, and they’re very happy to talk about it, and yet they’re constricted from being identified, because all these programs are secret, including the use of drones, you know, the thing that everyone knows that goes on. It’s just something that no one can talk about. And so I have to be careful in describing who told me exactly what, but it’s pretty clear from the context, and from the level of details you say, you know, who gave me the accounts. And the one you’ve just described was, you know, is something that was told to me with some pride and some sadness, because this particular individual was deeply affected and wounded by what happened that day, and knew the people personally. And it was just shattering to them to have so many people lost in a single incident.
HH: Now Joby Warrick, I have not yet described to people the central event, if they don’t know what happened on December 30th, 2009, in The Triple Agent. And now, they can turn off, if they just want to read the book, and some people like to do that. But for the benefit of those who are going to endure, and I hope many people do, through the rest of the hour, to get the details, I’m not going to outline everything in the book, but would you give the summary of what happened on December 30th, 2009, halfway across the world to a different group of American heroes that we don’t often think about who are waging this war.
JW: Well, we all know now about the event of May 1st, when bin Laden was found and killed. But what people don’t realize is that a few months prior to that, a year and a half prior to that, there was a moment when the CIA and the national security folks in Washington felt that they were very close to getting senior members of al Qaeda. And it all revolved around an agent, somebody they were very excited about, somebody who seemed to have penetrated the highest levels of al Qaeda, and sent back photographic proof, in fact, just killer details about the kinds of stuff he was getting. And there was such excitement, that there was a rush to try to meet this man, to try to debrief him, to try to get him moving on the next mission, which was going to include, perhaps, taking down the number two leader of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri. And instead, it was all an elaborate trap that was arranged by al Qaeda itself, which CIA members were brought into a meeting, and then a man walks in with a bomb that’s strapped to his chest and blows himself up. So nine people were killed that day plus the bomber, and it was the worst single one-day death toll for the agency in 25 years.
HH: A quote from Page 179 of The Triple Agent, “It had all been a trick.” That was such a deafening line for its succinctness, Joby Warrick. And also, they’re smart. They’re evil and they’re smart.
JW: Yeah. We think of the CIA being the master of these clever ruses and front companies, and deception and the use of technology. But in this case, al Qaeda turned the tables and pulled what would have been a terrific trick that we would have used against them, and instead they used our own technology and did this Jujitsu move against us, and it worked.
HH: You know, I was reminded of the assassination of Mehsud right before 9/11, when journalists very patiently, terrorists posing as journalists, went up to the Northern Alliance headquarters and waited and waited and waited with their booby trapped camera. So we ought never not to recall, do you think, Joby Warrick, that these people are talented, patient killers.
JW: And smart. These are not people who are just, you know, ignorant, uneducated people living in caves. The man at the center of this plot was a physician. He’d been trained in the West. He thought like we did. He was very sophisticated in his views about how things work. And he was willing to give his life, and he and his al Qaeda co-conspirators planned very carefully, and worked for weeks and weeks and weeks until the moment was right, until the opportunity presented itself, and then they moved and they succeeded.
HH: Now before I go on through the next four segments, I want to tell the audience a little bit about the American heroes at the center of this narrative, men and women who were halfway around the world in various roles in order to protect Americans against those sorts of people. Before the break, we’ve got about a minute, Jennifer Matthews, just what an amazing portrait you put of her.
JW: She’s really a very unique person. She was probably in a single person the most knowledgeable CIA officer in terms of understanding al Qaeda, understanding all the branches of it, and how the networks related to each other. And she was given her very first war zone assignment, which led her to be at this base on this very fateful day.
HH: And one of the very early women sort of senior execs rising through the agency. In order to rise, she had to go to Khost Air Base, one of the forward operating bases, Camp Chapman, at the edge of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. More about Jennifer Matthews and her colleagues when I return with Joby Warrick. The new book is The Triple Agent. And on a day where America has killed one of the bad guys, it’s a book you want to go out and order right now. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com. You’ll know at the end of reading it how we did what we did today, and every day, via the people at the CIA.
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HH: On a day when obviously he’s going to be busy with the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, the President announced it today, but I really want to stay focused not just on that, but The Triple Agent, Joby Warrick’s new book, which I’ve linked over at Hughhewitt.com. It’s only been out a couple of weeks, and it’s an amazing read. I don’t put many books on the “necessary bookshelf” that begins with The Looming Tower, but this one went on immediately, and I urge you to go and get it. Joby, when we went to break, we were talking about Jennifer Matthews. And I appreciate details like people have gone to Cedarville College, and they got their graduate degree at Miami, and about their kids, because it makes them just so much more human and real, and the sacrifice so much more aching. Tell people about David LaBonte. If I’m pronouncing these correctly, great. If I’m not, please correct me.
JW: That’s pretty close – LaBonte. And here’s a man who was just extraordinarily talented. He could have been a professional baseball player, and decided it wasn’t sufficiently meaningful. He wanted to do something for his country, so he became an Army Ranger, became a Special Forces soldier, did that for a number of years, and excelled at it. He was, you know, a very strong and capable athlete, but somebody who wanted to find some way to serve his country. And after a series of jobs, FBI and other places in government, he became a CIA officer, and he had this double mission of being one of their Special Forces officers, the ones that go into places like Afghanistan and do jobs that we never, ever read about or hear about, and he was also a case office who ran informants, and was based out of Jordan, went around the world with Jordanian counterparts, looking for bad guys, kicking in doors, sort of a Hollywood kind of life. And he was one of the officers who was intimately involved in this operation to bring this Jordanian agent in and debrief him. And he was one of the ones we also lost on that day.
HH: Down from Kabul that day as well, a young CIA analyst, Elizabeth Hanson. It’s almost impossible for me to believe, and as it was for this amazing Army doctor whom you must have interviewed, that she was there, and that just a tiny bit of shrapnel took her life. What was she, 30 years old?
JW: Just 30, and she was strikingly beautiful, blonde, full of life, vivacious, and yet was doing a job for the CIA, one of these roles that again, no one really has a clue about. Her job was called targeter. And when she was back at Langley, she was the one who would put together the file on a particular terrorist, on some one like al-Awlaki, figure out where they were, what their habits of life were, who were the people that could get us close to this person, and would assemble these strands of intelligence from various places, from signals intelligence, from human intelligence, from all kinds of sources, and then put the CIA on a trajectory to finding and killing that person. And that’s what brought her to Khost that day.
HH: I appreciate as well that The Triple Agent includes the details on the life of Jeremy Wise, who’s a Blackwater guy, but he had been a Navy SEAL, and was buried by the SEALs, and the touching photograph of his son at his memorial service, where the SEALs were honoring him as well. Tell people about Jeremy Wise.
JW: Yeah, he was one, as you say, he was a member of the SEALs, and then later went to work for Blackwater, which we all know about, but which has done a sort of unsung job providing security at some of these very dangerous places. And he was providing security on the day of the meeting, and he was with several compatriots who were there to bring the guy into the base, and gave him the first frisking to find out if he was armed or carrying a wire, or something like that, and was standing just a few steps away from him when he blew himself up.
HH: Dane Paresi, also part of the security staff, also Blackwater, and also an amazing American who’s service prior to that moment had been all around the world doing very difficult jobs with a glad heart.
JW: And had won a Bronze Star for fighting in Afghanistan, and was a Green Beret, you know, just decades of experience, and great courage to be in a place like Khost, Afghanistan on that day.
HH: Harold Brown, Jr., probably I got the least amount of detail here. I’m just curious, is he related?
JW: I’m sorry, which one?
HH: Harold Brown, Jr., Is he related to the former secretary of Defense?
JW: Oh, Harold Brown. He was, no, but he was someone again who had an Army career, had been an Army intelligence officer, and was kind of flitting around for a few years trying to find if he wanted to work for government or in private industry, and felt called to do something more for his country, and then had three kids at home and a new baby, but decided this was where he needed to be, so he left his family and went to live in Afghanistan for a year to try to track down terrorists.
HH: And finally, Scott Roberson, who was in charge of security that day, and was fretting, was worrying that we should not let this fellow that we do not know, regardless of what he sent over, into the middle of our compound, but obviously overruled.
JW: Yeah, there was a clash between this eagerness to meet this agent, and sort of the caution of people like Roberson who was a little bit worried this could be a trap. Roberson had been a narcotics officer in Atlanta. He had served in Iraq, he had done all kinds of dangerous jobs, and he had kind of a spider sense for knowing when things were not quite right. And he had strong feelings that this operation was not going to end well.
HH: There was also a Jordanian there, who’s name is Ali bin Zeid. There were two Jordanians there, or one of whom, of course, was the triple agent for whom the book is named. But Ali bin Zeid is an interesting royal family member in Jordan, a dedicated professional, and obviously a courageous man. It reminds us we have allies in the Arab world who are fighting and sacrificing with us in this war.
JW: He’s one of the most remarkable people in the book, to me, and it is interesting to note that he was a member of the royal family. He was somebody who had worked for the Jordanian intelligence agency for years, and had helped cement this very close bond that the CIA has with the Jordanians. We do a lot of things around the world with them. They’re very capable and helpful allies, one of the most reliable services and most talented in the world in terms of getting inside these terrorist groups and figuring out what they’re all about. And he was the person who was the case officer in charge of the Balawi case, and was the only one of all the people at the meeting that day who had actually met the bomber before.
HH: And the killer, the bomber, obviously flummoxed him, and we’ll talk more about that after the break. But before I do, it’s obvious you’ve spent some time with the families of the fallen here. And I hope they haven’t been sort of forgotten by their country. I mentioned last night, I saw the screening of Act Of Valor, the movie that the Navy cooperated with that stars real SEALs doing real SEAL thing. And one of the byproducts of that movie is it will, I think, generate enormous support for the community and the families, especially, of those who have fallen in the war. But does that exist for the Special Forces of the CIA, and the analysts, and the operators who are out there as well?
JW: Not to the same extent. And as you probably well know, that when people die in these secret services, often we never even know their names. There’s a memorial wall at the CIA headquarters in Langley which just is a bunch of stars and a big, leather volume that has names for some of the individuals, and others just a blank space and a number, saying that this person was killed, and the name will forever be confidential, because he was doing classified work. And so it’s been difficult for these families to get recognition. The CIA tries to take care of them, but it’s been a difficult process, and some of them are really struggling.
HH: I hope The Triple Agent brings attention to them. Let me ask you as well, your responsibility as the national security reporter is not to make the life of our operators more dangerous. I’m sure you’re, you keep that in mind. But you also have to realize the bad guys will read this book. And so how did you write it with that in mind?
JW: I was very careful in thinking about that, and I got a lot of good advice from people who were with the agency and are on the outside, and I shared the manuscript with a couple of them just to make sure that nothing sensitive was going to be given to the other side. This was an operation that was, in some ways, a one-off thing. It’s already happened, and with horrible consequences, but there are no particular secrets that al Qaeda would be able to get out of this that would do them any good.
HH: No particular secrets, but for the American reader, an immense appreciation for who is fighting the war and how they are doing so.
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HH: He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and he is the author of phenomenal new book, The Triple Agent: The al Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated The CIA, which I’ve linked at Hughhewitt.com. I’ll be posting a couple of Tweets about it, and I really urge you to go and get it, and get some for your friends who say they are tired of the war, that we don’t need forward operating bases, don’t know what we’re doing, they’re all just shambling around, al Qaeda is shattered, because it’s real time, almost real time reporting on what is going on at that border, and indeed what happened today in Yemen to Anwar al-Awlaki. What’s invaluable about this, Joby, and I don’t want to praise you too much, I don’t want you to blush, but that it gives the readers a look into the Taliban-al Qaeda threat as it exists today. You know, Lawrence Wright was where did they come from and how did they get to 9/11. And his afterwards is very interesting. But today, the Taliban, I mean, whether it’s the Mehsud clan, or the Haqqani that you describe, or their connection, it’s completely different than it was on 9/11, and I don’t know that we’ve kept up, at least on the civilian side here.
JW: We’ve been successful for taking out some of the big al Qaeda figures. We’ve been whittling away at them for a while. The book helps bring to focus the fact that this is a metastasizing problem. This is a network, not just a single organization. And they have very strong alliances with these other groups, and some of them were purely local. The Taliban in Pakistan was strictly Pakistan focused. But now, it’s become global. It has, it was behind the attack on Times Square last year. It continues to have aspirations to attack us at home. And so just because al Qaeda seems to be on the decline, it doesn’t mean that this network has gone out of business. In fact, it’s quite the contrary.
HH: In fact, that’s one of the shocking things in The Triple Agent at the conclusion, that the Times Square bomber may have been an operator of Hakimullah Mehsud. Are you persuaded that he actually was being run by the Mehsuds?
JW: And there’s some evidence to come up, and I was actually surprised to hear that, too. In fact, it was amazing to see how many tentacles from this one little cell in the tribal area of Pakistan ended up having implications for us here in the United States, most particularly this Times Square bombing. The man had gone to Pakistan before his attempt, he had met with some of the same individuals, there are videos of him together with some of these Taliban leaders, and part of his mission was to try to get revenge for the drone strikes that were killing Taliban and al Qaeda people back in Pakistan.
HH: One of the things I appreciate about The Triple Agent is you do make it accessible to people who are going to have to struggle with names and places, so that Sheikh Saeed al-Masri, the number three in al Qaeda, you kind of figure out his relationship to Baitullah Mehsud and all the other people by going through this. But how much do you have to actually work, Joby Warrick, to stay abreast of this? I would think this would be as difficult as a CIA analyst job that you’ve got.
JW: It’s…you should see my basement office, which is essentially just a wall full of charts that are just big pieces of paper that I’ve stapled up on the walls with arrows and diagrams pointing and connecting this man and this man on this particular date. And it’s kind of the way the CIA has had to operate, because these are, it’s a very fluid organization. Relationships are changing and evolving all the time. And it does take a full time staff just to keep up with where they are.
HH: Now from your perspective of someone who has to follow it, we’ve got this portrait of this weak, dithering, aimless man, doctor, who finds himself strutting across the internet, and then into the hands of the Jordanian intelligence service, I never pronounce the Mukhabarat correctly, and then sort of canon it off into jihad land, where he becomes this killer triple agent, this master spy being manipulated. How many people are there like him, do you think, Joby Warrick, who are wandering through the internet world waiting to be manipulated by one side or another in something they only dimly perceive what they’re involved with?
JW: There’s an army of people who are out in that blogosphere that are doing these kinds of things. Some of the circumstances that came together in this case were unique, I think, but there are many people out there who think exactly like this bomber was thinking, who would like to go out and do something. In fact, there’s this phenomenon in the tribal area where they’ll get these pilgrims from the outside world, people who’ve been on the internet, who’ve been writing these blogs, pleading for people to join jihad, and finally decide well, I’m going to do it myself. And so they quit their jobs, they move to Pakistan, and volunteer for service. And that’s essentially what this man did, except he got the CIA to pay his ticket.
HH: A minute to the break, there is a very good discussion of how waterboarding figured in the career of some of these CIA people as well as in the hunt for bin Laden, and for all these different people. Have you gotten pushback from this from your civil libertarian friends who loathe the process?
JW: Not a bit. You know, it’s been interesting that people can take a book like this, because it does work as a spy story, and they may bring their own background and views into it, and there are things that make certain people uncomfortable. But I’ve been happy to see that there’s been no pushback from some of the agency folks who’ve read this account, and were happy to see how it’s all been portrayed. These are not people who are out to do anything malicious, or run out to try to harm anyone’s civil liberties, but did see a job to be done, and they did it the best they could at the time.
HH: As was done in Yemen today, regardless of what the ACLU says.
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HH: Joby Warrick, today, the drones and their new versions, whether they’re Predators or to a Reaper, you describe it all. If anyone wants to understand how this drone war is waged, they will read The Triple Agent. Front page news today, but I think what was a revelation is the furious onslaught that the CIA released on the bad guys after the Khost massacre that you detail in The Triple Agent. It’s a revelation of the amazing uptick in our capabilities now.
JW: Yes, and there was a lot of kind of latent capability that was, I guess to describe it more properly, there’s a limit to what the Pakistani public can bear as far as the CIA perceives it. They feel these strikes are necessary, but they don’t want to do too many of them at any particular time, because they’re worried about blowback from Pakistan. After this bombing took place, all gloves came off. There was in incredible uptick in the pace of these drone strikes. And what was really interesting to me was to learn and appreciate just how sophisticated these machines are, what they can do, how they can arm themselves with different munitions, how they can fire in all kinds of weather and under complete darkness, and manage to hit their targets, and for the most part, with very limited collateral damage. They’re very careful about how these missiles are fired.
HH: Joby Warrick, I’ve had a number of conversations on air and off with Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rice, even former President Bush, about whether or not the United States has done a good job telling its citizens how it fights this war. I’m a critic that they do not put out enough information about just how lethal our Special Forces, our military generally, and our CIA is. Do you agree with that? Do you think that they, because I don’t think anyone knows this story. I follow it closely, and I didn’t know this story until I read The Triple Agent, or what we did after the Khost bombing.
JW: And same for me, and I covered the agency. There was so much that I learned, it just was jaw-dropping to me. And the kinds of things that we’re doing on a routine basis, the kind of care that goes into these strikes, and you know, people can argue that some of it’s the CIA trying to present a good spin, but I felt quite the opposite, because I of course talked to other people, including those on the Pakistani side of the border. Some of them have been brought in to see how careful we are in carrying out some of these strikes, and how we monitor this mud hut for three or four days to make sure that no women and children are going in and out. We pick a time where we’re sure we’re going to get the person we’re after, and then we watch to make sure that we got the guy and we didn’t get someone else. So it’s something that takes a lot of precision, and it’s carefully watched and monitored. But it’s unsung.
HH: Unsung. And I think Chapter 16 and 17, which are titled Fallen and Resolved, should be read and reread again by civilians like me, because it’s the cost of the war that’s being born by others. It’s deeply moving, and I don’t think anyone quite understands what these agency people do, or the amount of courage that’s required for them to go off and do this, or the security people, or our allies in other intelligence agencies.
JW: Yes, these are people that often have families. They’re not young Army recruits. They’re people who have made a whole career out of doing this. And some of them, like this Jennifer Matthews, worked in the Washington suburbs for years, and raised three children, and went back and forth with a horrible commute to try to track down al Qaeda figures every day. But then she gives up life with family, gives up time with her kids to go to a place like Afghanistan, where her life is going to be in danger, where she’s going to work ridiculous hours with no credit, people, her neighbors, her friends, some family members don’t even know what she does for a living. And in the end, she ends up giving her life.
HH: I want to ask you about the bit of intelligence which really triggered all of these events, which is that Mehsud, one of the Taliban chieftans, is thought by our intelligence agencies to have nuclear devices, later, perhaps, dirty bombs. I’m not sure at the end of this book where you think that trail ends, whether it’s cold, or whether it was overstated at the beginning.
JW: My sense is that it’s cold, because there was, and this is something that actually has never been reported anywhere else. I was sort of shocked to learn that a threat this significant had come forward in 2009, and no one in the media ever really got wind of it. But essentially, some communications intercepts indicated that Taliban had some kind of nuclear device, and there was much agonizing and work to try to figure out if it was actual nuclear material or some kind of dirty bomb. And in the end, it was never resolved, but there was a really good train of information that showed that there was some kind of plot in the works to blow up a dirty bomb someplace in the world, perhaps in the West. And to this day, we don’t know exactly where that material is, or if it was some kind of a ruse that was put together by al Qaeda just to fake us out.
HH: Yeah, it’s fascinating reporting. Now Joby Warrick, also, given that you know so much about this, and The Triple Agent is so detailed in this, I’m curious if you have an opinion on whether or not the agency believes they could actually wage this war without these forward operating bases like Forward Operating Base Chapman at the Khost Air Base, because there’s a lot of talk now about oh come on, let’s get out, we can sit offshore, we can do this from aircraft carriers, we don’t need to be there. I don’t know after reading The Triple Agent how anyone can conclude we can possibly keep the fight at the Taliban’s throat and at al Qaeda’s throat without these sorts of bases.
JW: And it’s absolutely essential, I think, as far as they’re concerned. And it’s hard to see that they’re not. There’s…it’s not just a matter of having good satellites and good technology. You have to have people on the front line who can do the spotting on the ground, who can coordinate what the drones are doing, and what we’re observing through our informants. There’s a vast amount of work that goes into it, a lot of money. And the alternative is to let these people create their own empires and form their plots, and then try to come after us. So the whole idea is to keep them off balance, to hit them as hard as we can, as often as we can, and hopefully they won’t have the ability to really move in a significant way against us.
HH: One of the sub-themes of The Triple Agent is the blood feud, and how it does infuse every aspect of the Taliban culture. So the question you raise, but don’t answer, is whether or not this war produces more new terrorists than it kills. It certainly produces, you know, leaders step into the vacuum, as you chart in these clans, et cetera. But do you think it will ever be over?
JW: There is a blowback, and you do have to worry that when people are killed in that part of the world, that they are duty-bound to try to get revenge. But that’s why it’s also important that the CIA has, is careful with what it does, that it targets carefully, that it makes sure it doesn’t kill women and children needlessly, and they do try to do a good job of that. And I get that not only from the CIA, but from people on the other side who can speak honestly and candidly about this, and they acknowledge that this is something that really targets foreign terrorists that shouldn’t be there in the first place.
HH: Yeah, the al-Masri targeting is a study in ethics that I think will be taught at war college for a long time. And I suppose today’s killing of al-Awlaki will be the same.
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HH: I hope I’ve communicated my admiration for this new book, The Triple Agent, by my guest, Joby Warrick. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com. Joby, do you have a Twitter handle?
JW: I do. It’s just @jobywarrick, and it’s a little bit underutilized. I’m slowly getting the hang of this social media stuff. I’m afraid I’m kind of late to the game.
HH: Well, I hope a lot of people go and follow, and by their presence, you’ll feel, at least you’ll let us know when you write something. Hey, I want to talk, conclude in our three minutes here, about the people at the top of the pyramid. On the last Wednesday of his administration, George W. Bush had a half dozen talkers back to the Oval Office. I was among them. Off the record, I don’t want to beak the rules there, but one of the key message in that conversation is that we needed to give the new guy a chance, because it’s a very hard job when it comes to the war. And I’ve got to say, Obama made all the right calls in The Triple Agent. I don’t agree with the guy on anything, and I hope he’s defeated 50 states to none, but the portrait that comes through in The Triple Agent is that he is presented with some very tough choices, and he makes them, and Leon Panetta is a tough SOB who does the same thing.
JW: Yeah, there’s no question about Panetta’s toughness. And I’ve gotten a chance to observe that quite a bit myself in the time that he was in office. Now, of course, he’s gone on to the Defense Department. And as you say, whatever you feel about Obama on other issues, from social to economic, I think you do have to give him credit for having the right instincts when it comes to fighting al Qaeda. And all the decisions that were made in going after bin Laden, using Special Forces teams and helicopters, and just very risky, especially when we didn’t even know that bin Laden was necessarily in that house, showed some courage and some toughness. And I think he does deserve some commendation for that.
HH: And it also makes very clear to me the choice of David Petraeus as a very appropriate one, because the CIA, and I want to close with this, they are, as much as the Navy SEALs and the 4th Infantry Division, on the front line of this war.
JW: They are, and it’s a shooting war. It’s a war of violence. It’s unfolding every day, and it’s really the only tool that’s available in that part of the world to be doing the things we’re doing.
HH: Very last question, what I love about this is that this drone war has really got people like al-Awlaki overlooking their shoulder every single night when they go to sleep. It’s, you manage to capture the insight. How did you get the inside of the al Qaeda? Just spending time with their websites and their propagandists?
JW: Some of that, but also I have some really good testimonials from some of the individuals who are actually there, who described to me or to some of my co-workers who helped me with the research in Pakistan, the level of fear and how people do worry when they drive down the street, when they’re in their beds at night, they hear, whether it’s real or not, they have this sensation of hearing these Predator drones up in the sky. So if nothing else, we’ve literally put the fear of God into some of these people.
HH: Are you surprised we got al-Awlaki today?
JW: I thought it would happen sooner or later. He’s a difficult target because of where it is. And the wild frontiers of Yemen are just a very hard place to operate. But three times we tried to get him. Finally, today was the charm, and I think there’s no tears being shed in Washington or any other part of this world.
HH: Joby Warrick, congratulations again on a fine book that pays a great deal of honor to the people that deserve it at the agency, and their affiliated groups. The Triple Agent: The al Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated The CIA, a must read. It’s linked at Hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.