CIA will still use covert ops to target terrorists

WASHINGTON — The deaths of seven CIA employees in Afghanistan probably will not be the last. The U.S. isn't pulling back on covert operations to hunt terrorists there and in Pakistan and will go on taking chances on human tipsters to help.

In fact, the United States struck back at militant targets in Pakistan on Wednesday with explosives apparently launched from an airborne drone — the fifth such attack since the bombing that killed several top CIA operatives at a secret eastern Afghan base reportedly used as a key outpost in the effort to identify and target terrorist leaders.

The latest attack was a lethal message that the Obama administration views its airstrikes as too effective to abandon, even though they are unpopular with civilians and the U.S.-backed governments in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The apparent strike killed 13 people in an area of Pakistan's volatile northwest teeming with militants suspected of directing the suicide attack last week across the border in Afghanistan.

The U.S. deaths were a reminder that while the use of drones may lessen the risk to American pilots, the CIA-run operation has its own human Achilles' heel: the intelligence agents who practice old-fashioned spycraft to pinpoint the targets.

The attack came as a severe blow to the expertise and talent pool of the CIA in a little-understood country where its spies are now most at risk.

Charles Faddis, a former agency case officer, said it was a major strike to agency operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"CIA is a small outfit," said Faddis, who recently published "Beyond Repair," a scathing assessment of the agency. "You don't lose this many people in one strike and not feel it acutely."

The bomber, a Jordanian doctor identified as Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was apparently a double agent — perhaps even a triple-agent — who had been considered a key asset. Al-Balawi was invited inside the outpost facility bearing a promise of information about al-Qaida's second in command, presumed to be hiding in Pakistan.