Page last updated at 17:16 GMT, Thursday, 7 January 2010

How can you trust a double agent?

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

The CIA has been reminded of the complexities of operating double agents after a Jordanian doctor killed himself, seven CIA operatives and his Jordanian handler at a CIA outpost in Afghanistan. How do you know when to trust a double-agent?

The Al-Jazeera satellite channel broadcasts a picture of Balawi
Jordanians look at a picture of Balawi broadcast on Al-Jazeera

The CIA has described a double-agent operation as a "wilderness of mirrors".

Guidelines written by the agency in the 1960s say running such an operation is "one of the most demanding and complex counterintelligence activities in which an intelligence service can engage."

But it is also, potentially, one of the most valuable.

Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi was reportedly recruited by Jordanian intelligence officers after they arrested and imprisoned him last year.

According to reports, he was assigned a Jordanian handler who had a close working relationship with the CIA, and subsequently sent to Afghanistan to help locate top al-Qaeda leaders.

He was not searched when he entered the agency's remote Afghan outpost on 31 December, partly - it has been suggested - because they wanted him to feel trusted.

Establishing mutual trust is key in the world of the double agent, experts say.

A double agent is a person who engages in clandestine activity for two intelligence or security services (or more in joint operations), who provides information about one or about each to the other, and who wittingly withholds significant information from one on the instructions of the other or it unwittingly manipulated by one so that significant facts are withheld from the adversary.

From: Observations on the Double Agent - CIA

"It can take forever," says Robert Baer, a CIA field officer during the 1980s and 1990s.

"They are willing to give up a few pieces of information to appear credible, but there is usually a promise of better information."

He acknowledged that CIA operatives may have acted in haste because of the enormous pressure they were under to get results.

"It's down to experience," says Mr Baer. "Could I see myself getting caught out like that? It was certainly a tough call."


Colonel John Hughes-Wilson, a former British intelligence official said double-agents need to be controlled and monitored "like a hawk".

It was the Jordanians who made the first mistake, in his view.

"What appears to have happened is that the Jordanians got it badly wrong. They seem to have recruited a man who was a jihadist and they thought they had turned him in prison," he said.

A US soldier in Afghanistan
Experts say the US needs more Pashto speakers on the ground in Afghanistan

But the CIA, perhaps, put too much trust in their Jordanian partners.

According to the agency's "Observations on a Double Agent," written in 1962:

"Sometimes a double agent operation is turned over by a liaison service to a US service or by one US service to another. When such a transfer is to be made, the inheriting service ought to delve into the true origins of the case and acquire as much information as possible about its earlier history."

The manual also states that the "way a double agent case starts, deeply affects the operation throughout its life."

Almost all, it says, begin in one of the three following ways:

  • The Walk-In or Talk-In: The agent... [declares] that he works for a hostile service and to make an offer to turn against it. Although the danger of provocation is always present, some walk-ins and talk-ins have proved not only reliable but also very valuable.
  • The Agent Detected and Doubled: A service discovering an adversary agent may offer him employment as a double. His agreement, obtained under open or implied duress, is unlikely, however, to be accompanied by a genuine switch of loyalties.
  • The Provocation Agent: The active provocateur is sent by Service A to Service B to tell B that he works for A but wants to switch sides.

The manual also stipulates that one of the requirements for a case officer directing a double-agent is, "a thorough knowledge of the area and language."

So what does the Balawi case say about the CIA's ability to recruit al-Qaeda operatives as agents?

"What this indicates is that we haven't really advanced much since 9/11," says Mr Baer. "Afghanistan is an intelligence nightmare and we don't have any Arabic or Pashto speakers on the ground."

This, he said, led to an over-reliance on the Jordanians.

Intelligence experts say that the Americans have also tended to rely on technical intelligence (techint) at the expense of human intelligence (humint).

"Human intelligence can be dodgy, but you really do need a well-placed spy or agent," says Col Hughes-Wilson. "And the best way to succeed is to embed yourself at local level, understand the situation - win the hearts and the minds."

And even with the best intelligence gathering operation, things can still go wrong.

In the 1980s, for example, the CIA ran a successful network of double agents who passed on information from their KGB masters. However, it was later revealed that some of these agents were used by the KGB to funnel misleading information into the CIA.

"Double-agent operations can be incredibly successful as long as you get it right," says Col Hughes-Wilson.

They famously played a critical role in the run-up to World War II's D-Day, convincing German military leaders the Allies were planning an invasion through the Pas-de-Calais.

"But you can't win every battle," says Col Hughes-Wilson. "Sometimes in a messy situation, things will go dreadfully wrong."

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