News Item: The Spy Who Came Home - 1
(Category: DIVERSE)
Posted by Pârvu Florin
Thursday 13 June 2019 - 13:28:33


Why an expert in counterterrorism became a beat cop.

Shortly after an evening nap, Patrick Skinner drove to the police station in the Third Precinct in Savannah, Georgia, wearing ill-fitting body armor. It was late December, and bitterly cold, and he figured that the weather would bring fewer shootings than usual but more cases of domestic abuse. “Summertime is the murder time,” he said. He had come to work early to tape together his body camera, because the clasp was broken.

The shift supervisor—a tall corporal with a slight paunch—stood at a lectern. “Good mornin’, mornin’, mornin’,” he said. It was 10:31 p.m. Speaking through a wad of tobacco, he delivered a briefing on criminal activities from earlier in the day, then listed vehicles that had been reported stolen. “Look out for a cooter-colored truck,” he said.

The walls of the briefing room were sparsely decorated. There was a map of each beat within the precinct—an area, more than half the size of Manhattan, that includes Savannah’s most violent neighborhoods—along with a display case of various drug samples and a whiteboard listing police cars that were out of commission. One had overheated, two had been wrecked in accidents, and two others had broken headlights. A sixth car was labelled “unsafe for road.”

“What does ‘unsafe for road’ mean?” a cop asked.

“That’s all our cars,” another said.

Most patrol officers drive old Ford Crown Victorias, several of which are approaching two hundred thousand miles on the odometer—“and those are cop miles, where we’re flooring it at least twice an hour,” Skinner told me. Officers complain about worn tires, dodgy brakes, and holes in the seats where guns and batons have rubbed impressions into the fabric. Many cars run twenty-four hours a day.

Skinner, who is forty-seven, is short and bald, with a trim beard, Arctic-blue eyes, and a magnetic social energy that has the effect of putting people around him at ease. He wears humor and extroversion as a kind of shield; most of his colleagues know almost nothing about his life leading up to the moment they met.

At around 3 a.m., a call came in: a “strange vehicle” was idling in someone’s driveway, in the Summerside neighborhood. The caller gave no address and no description of the car.

Though Skinner had completed his training just two months earlier, he already knew every road in the Third Precinct. On slow nights, he tried to memorize the locations of Savannah’s traffic lights and stop signs, so that he could visualize the quickest route to any call. Darren Bradley, who went through training with Skinner, said, “When they gave us the sheets with police signals and codes”—a list of nearly two hundred radio call signs—“he looked it over once and had it in his head.”

As Skinner approached Summerside, a white Camaro with tinted windows pulled out and came toward him. Cars registered in Georgia don’t have license plates on the front, but, as the Camaro zoomed past, Skinner glanced into his side mirror, memorized the rear-plate number from its backward reflection, and called it in.

Skinner sped north, picturing the Camaro’s likely escape route, and how to cut the driver off. “If he’s an idiot, he’ll turn right on Fifty-second Street and end up behind me at the next light,” Skinner said. Two minutes later, the Camaro rounded a bend and pulled up behind Skinner. He smiled.

In Savannah, several cars are stolen every day—often for use in other crimes. The Camaro driver made some evasive maneuvers, but, to Skinner, this behavior did not qualify as probable cause for a traffic stop. When the dispatcher ran a check on the license plate, it came back clean. Skinner continued on his patrol.

Georgia’s law-enforcement-training program does not teach recruits to memorize license plates backward in mirrors. Like many of Skinner’s abilities, that skill was honed in the C.I.A. He joined the agency during the early days of America’s war on terror, one of the darkest periods in its history, and spent almost a decade running assets in Afghanistan, Jordan, and Iraq. He shook hands with lawmakers, C.I.A. directors, the King of Jordan, the Emir of Qatar, the Prime Minister of Singapore, and Presidents of Afghanistan and the United States. “I became the Forrest Gump of counterterrorism and law enforcement,” he said, stumbling in and out of the margins of history. But over the years he came to believe that counterterrorism was creating more problems than it solved, fuelling illiberalism and hysteria, destroying communities overseas, and diverting attention and resources from essential problems in the United States.

Meanwhile, American police forces were adopting some of the militarized tactics that Skinner had seen give rise to insurgencies abroad. “We have to stop treating people like we’re in Fallujah,” he told me. “It doesn’t work. Just look what happened in Fallujah.” In time, he came to believe that the most meaningful application of his training and expertise—the only way to exemplify his beliefs about American security, at home and abroad—was to become a community police officer in Savannah, where he grew up.

“We write these strategic white papers, saying things like ‘Get the local Sunni population on our side,’ ” Skinner said. “Cool. Got it. But, then, if I say, ‘Get the people who live at Thirty-eighth and Bulloch on our side,’ you realize, man, that’s fucking hard—and it’s just a city block. It sounds so stupid when you apply the rhetoric over here. Who’s the leader of the white community in Live Oak neighborhood? Or the poor community?” Skinner shook his head. “ ‘Leader of the Iraqi community.’ What the fuck does that mean?”

No military force can end terrorism, just as firefighters can’t end fire and cops can’t end crime. But there are ways to build a resilient society. “It can’t be on a government contract that says ‘In six months, show us these results,’ ” Skinner said. “It has to be ‘I live here. This is my job forever.’ ”He compared his situation to that of Voltaire’s Candide, who, after enduring a litany of absurd horrors in a society plagued by fanaticism and incompetence, concludes that the only truly worthwhile activity is tending his garden. “ Except my garden is the Third Precinct,” Skinner said.

“I’ve never been a senior anything,” Skinner said. “Always a rookie.” In 1991, when he was nineteen, he joined the Coast Guard; he spent two years carrying out search-and-rescue operations, followed by three years working on an icebreaker in the Hudson River.

He met his wife, Theresa, in the Coast Guard, and in 1999 she was assigned to a position at headquarters, in Washington, D.C. Skinner, who had spent the past couple of years working as a waiter and a flight attendant while finishing his college degree, joined the Capitol Police, but his graduation ceremony was interrupted by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Before the debris settled, Skinner had faxed an application to the C.I.A. In the following weeks, the agency received more than a hundred thousand applications; it took months to sift through the pile.

The Capitol Police temporarily assigned Skinner to plainclothes duty in the Senate. On January 29, 2002, he accompanied Mayor Michael Bloomberg to President George W. Bush’s first State of the Union address. They sat together as Bush spoke of an “axis of evil” made up of rogue states “and their terrorist allies,” setting the stage for the invasion of Iraq.

Later that year, Skinner left the Capitol Police and became an air marshal. One day, he got a call from a blocked number. “You applied to work for the government?” the caller asked.

“I already work for the government,” Skinner replied.

“Yeah, but I mean the government.”

The caller was a recruiter for the C.I.A. “He asked me some rapid-fire questions—‘Is the Indus River north or south of Kashmir?’ ‘What was the date of Partition?’ ‘Name five towns in the occupied West Bank’—basically to cross me off his list,” Skinner said. “But I knew all the answers, because I had sat on airplanes for the past six months, doing nothing but reading newspapers and The Economist.”

In the summer of 2003, Skinner joined the C.I.A.’s third post-9/11 class, as a prospective case officer, working under diplomatic cover. He refuses to discuss the training program—the agency doesn’t officially acknowledge its existence—but much of it can be pieced together from memoirs by former spies.

Training begins at the C.I.A. headquarters, in Langley, Virginia, where aspiring case officers develop cover identities to facilitate clandestine work abroad. After a few months, they are sent to the Farm—a sprawling, wooded campus in southeastern Virginia. There, for about nine months, the students inhabit an increasingly complex role-playing scenario, in which the Farm is a fictitious unfriendly country and the instructors serve as teachers, tacticians, sources, border guards, and officers of a hostile intelligence agency. Case officers rarely steal secrets themselves; instead, they recruit well-placed foreigners to pass along information.

Students practice their recruitment skills at fake embassy parties. Each is assigned a target from the host country, and is tasked with carrying out conversations that play to the target’s interests and hobbies; by the end of the evening, students are expected to have elicited their assets’ contact details, which are used to begin a delicate, months-long process of recruitment. The next day, they receive feedback on their approach. They lose points for tells as minor as drinking beer from a bottle; diplomats typically use a glass.

Students are trained in tactical skills that they hope they’ll never need. During the driving course, known as “crash and burn,” they learn how to avoid obstacles at high speeds, how to behave at checkpoints, and how to smash through barricades. They practice navigation and hand-to-hand combat, and spend days hiding in the mud while being hunted by armed instructors. They are taught to jump out of airplanes and to handle explosives, foreign weapons, and the gadgetry of secret communications.

They also spend hundreds of hours outside the campus, skulking through suburban Virginia and Maryland, crafting surveillance-detection routes, on foot and in rental cars. Each student scopes out sites at which to meet with the asset from the embassy party, then devises ninety-minute paths to the locations, through congested areas and isolated roads, with regular stops at gas stations and shops, in order to obscure the real objective, which is to draw a surveillance team into view. Every year, the agency wrecks several rental cars; students spend so much time staring at their mirrors that they sometimes lose sight of what’s in front of them.

The C.I.A.’s fixation on area familiarization has shaped Skinner’s approach to policing. He begins each shift by driving the perimeter of his beat, then working his way inward, sometimes heading the wrong direction down one-way streets to insure that he does not fall into familiar patterns. On slow nights, he parks at the scenes of unsolved robberies that took place weeks earlier and imagines which escape route the thief would have taken, so that next time he can go straight to wherever the thief is headed.

In the Third Precinct, many establishments that stay open past midnight are robbed at gunpoint several times a year. “People thank cops for their service, but they should be thanking McDonald’s workers,” Skinner told me. “They’re way more likely to have a gun in their face than I am.” He added, “The only place that doesn’t really get hit is the late-night liquor store. People are thinking, If this place gets shut down, how will we get in drunken fights?”

One night, Skinner and I arrived at the site of a mystifying car wreck near Candler Hospital, on the southern edge of the precinct. Someone, while driving out of a parking lot, had launched a Ford Taurus more than twenty feet up a grassy knoll and into the hospital’s sign. The front seat was covered in blood, but there was no one around. In the back, Skinner found diapers, an empty bottle of the opiate hydrocodone, an extra set of license plates, and a driver’s license showing a thin white man in his late twenties, with dishevelled brown hair.

“He didn’t have to walk far,” an officer quipped. The emergency-room entrance was at the other end of the lot.

“Already checked. He’s not there,” Bradley McClellan, a young patrol officer, said.

Candler Hospital is on a busy highway, surrounded by strip malls and residential streets. Skinner narrowed his search to three likely spots, based on the cold weather and the apparent extent of the driver’s injuries. He drove two blocks to a McDonald’s, and the Walgreens next door, and told employees to look out for “Shaggy, from ‘Scooby-Doo,’ but drunk and bleeding.” Skinner explained, “He’s not embarrassed that he’s a poor driver—he’s running from a D.U.I.” By sobering up before turning himself in, the man could avoid alcohol-related charges.

Skinner’s third hunch was that the man had gone north on Habersham Street—heading back toward town, to be picked up by a friend. At 2:41 a.m., medical personnel at Candler called the police; Shaggy had been picked up, drunk and bleeding, at a gas station on Habersham, and was now in the E.R., shouting expletives and trying to attack the medical staff. A doctor suspected that he had broken his back, and had him involuntarily committed and strapped to a board. After his blood was taken, the cops just needed a warrant for the sample to prove the D.U.I. in court.

In the summer of 2004, Skinner completed his C.I.A. training and was deployed to Kandahar, an Afghan city near the border with Pakistan, where the agency was operating out of the former home of Mullah Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Afghan Taliban. Kabul had fallen three years earlier, but Al Qaeda’s leadership had found refuge in the mountainous border areas, and Pakistani intelligence was quietly supporting the Taliban. C.I.A. officers, confined to Afghanistan, struggled to recruit assets who could penetrate jihadi networks in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. Access was not the C.I.A.’s only obstacle; elsewhere in Afghanistan, the agency was using National Geographic maps from the nineteen-sixties, with names for landmarks and villages that didn’t correspond to those used by the locals.

People in Kandahar often sought Skinner out, hoping to trade secrets for cash. “We were temporary-duty officers, and they knew our rotations,” he told me. “They’d have a story of how, in Quetta”—just across the Pakistani border—“they had seen bin Laden, Zawahiri, Captain Marvel—all these people. And if you just got there you’re, like, ‘Holy fucking shit, I’m the best case officer in American history!’ And you give them five hundred bucks and write it up for Langley.” By the end of his rotation, Skinner had heard the same discredited stories dozens of times.

Douglas Laux, a case officer from Indiana, had studied Pashto, the language spoken in southern Afghanistan, before deploying to Kandahar, in 2010. When several walk-ins gave him the name of the same Taliban fighter, he asked one of them how everyone had suddenly learned it. “He informed me that the local Afghan radio stations in the area regularly broadcast the names of individuals the U.S. military wanted information about,” Laux writes in his memoir, “Left of Boom,” which was heavily redacted by the C.I.A. The military knew this but had neglected to inform the agency, and walk-ins had been cashing in for years.

Espionage hinges on human relationships. “The best assets I ever ran weren’t in it for money,” Skinner said. “They had this urge to be part of something bigger. It wasn’t patriotism—they just wanted to be part of a high-functioning team.” But most assets could be trusted only in a very narrow context, and locals routinely sought American firepower to back them in personal or tribal disputes. “They might tell you it’s to help their country—they know we love to hear that—when it’s actually revenge,” Skinner said.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military was trying to defeat the Taliban and install a new government, while the C.I.A. was primarily focussed on killing members of Al Qaeda. At times, Special Operations Forces and intelligence officers coördinated on highly effective raids. But tactical successes are meaningless without a strategy, and it wore on Skinner and other C.I.A. personnel that they could rarely explain how storming Afghan villages made American civilians safer.

They also never understood why the United States leadership apparently believed that the American presence would fix Afghanistan. “We were trying to do nation-building with less information than I get now at police roll call,” Skinner said. Two months into the U.S. invasion, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defense Secretary, revealed in a memo that he didn’t know what languages were spoken in Afghanistan. Each raid broke the country a little more than the previous one. “So we would try harder, which would make it worse,” Skinner said. “And so we’d try even harder, which would make it even worse.”

The assessments of field operatives carried little weight with officials in Washington. “They were telling us, ‘Too many people have died here for us just to leave,’ ” Skinner recalled. “ ‘But we don’t want to give the Taliban a timeline.’ So, forever? Is that what you’re going for? They fucking live there, dude.”

Skinner spent a year in Afghanistan, often under fire from Taliban positions, and returned several times in the next decade. He kept a note pinned to his ballistic vest that read “Tell my wife it was pointless.”

The preferred weapon of the Taliban—and of most insurgencies, worldwide—is the Kalashnikov, a Soviet-developed assault rifle that can penetrate a person’s torso from more than half a mile away. Last year, Bradley McClellan confiscated a Kalashnikov and several pistols from two juvenile pot dealers in Savannah. Although police-issue bulletproof vests can stop rounds fired from a handgun, they are useless against assault rifles. “After seeing what little kids can get their hands on, I went out and bought hard plates,” designed for use in war zones, McClellan told me. The plates cost him more than five hundred dollars—a week’s salary.

The prevalence of high-powered weapons in America is creating an arms race between citizens and the authorities. Each year, dozens of cops are shot dead, and officers kill around a thousand members of the public—often after mistaking innocuous objects for weapons or frightened behavior for threats. Meanwhile, peaceful protesters are increasingly confronted with snipers, armored vehicles, and smoke and tear gas. In the past twenty years, more than five billion dollars’ worth of military gear has been transferred from the military to state and local police departments, including night-vision equipment, boats, aircraft, grenade launchers, and bayonets. “If we wanted an mrap”—a military vehicle, designed to protect soldiers from ambushes and mines—“we would just have to submit an application to the federal government,” Skinner told me.

According to David M. Kennedy, one of the nation’s leading criminologists, American policing is practiced more as a craft than as a profession. “The kind of thinking that should go into framing and refining what a profession of public safety should be has still not been done,” he told me. Officers are deployed as enforcers of the state, without being taught psychology, anthropology, sociology, community dynamics, local history, or criminology. Lethal force is prioritized above other options. When Skinner joined the police force, everyone in his class was given a pistol, but none were given Tasers, because the department had run out.

At Georgia’s state police-training facilities, the focus is “all tactics and law,” Skinner told me. Officers are taught that “once you give a lawful order it has to be followed—and that means immediately.” But the recipient of a “lawful order” may not understand why it’s being issued, or that his or her failure to comply may lead to the use of force. There’s no training on how to de-escalate tense scenarios in which no crime has been committed, even though the majority of police calls fall into that category. It is up to the officer’s discretion to shape these interactions, and the most straightforward option is to order belligerent people to the ground and, if they resist, tackle them and put them in cuffs.

“This is how situations go so, so badly—yet justifiably, legally,” Skinner said. Police officers often encounter people during the worst moments of their lives, and Skinner believes that his role is partly to resolve trouble and partly to prevent people from crossing the line from what he calls “near-crime” into “actual crime.” The goal, he said, is “to slow things down, using the power of human interaction more than the power of the state.”

“The de-escalation calls are so much more draining for me than grabbing people,” he told me. “My head is humming during the call. It’s exactly—and I mean exactly—like the prep work I used to do for the agency, where you’re seeing the interaction unfold in the way that you steer it.” As a case officer, Skinner drew flowcharts, mapping out every direction he thought a conversation might go. Now, he said, “instead of having a week to prepare for the meeting, I have as much time as it takes to drive up to the call.”

Skinner always drives with the windows down: he tries to maximize the number of encounters people have with the police in which they feel neither scrutinized nor under suspicion. “You sometimes hear cops talk about people in the community as ‘civilians,’ but that’s bullshit,” he said. “We’re not the military. The people we’re policing are our neighbors. This is not semantics—if you say it enough, it becomes a mind-set.” On days off, he stays at home, tending his garden and his pets and soaking in his iron bathtub, with an iPad propped against the faucet, watching standup-comedy routines and studying how facial expressions and vocal tones can defuse tension. “Little frown here or little shrug there makes a huge difference,” he recently posted to Twitter, along with a clip of Ricky Gervais delivering morbid jokes about orphans and cancer.

During several searches and a house raid, I noticed that Skinner was the only officer who kept his gun holstered. One night, at 4 a.m., an alarm was triggered at his mother’s former high school; officers found an open door. Three of them stalked the premises with their pistols drawn. Skinner used his flashlight. He told me that, because they were all looking in different directions, having guns drawn only increased the likelihood that they would accidentally shoot one another.

And then there are the calls where the violence has already taken place: a murder outside a gas station, a gang shoot-out with multiple casualties, a domestic-abuse case in which a man beat his girlfriend unconscious after she told him that he needed to help with the bills. We visited the woman in the hospital, where a nurse stood by as Skinner took a police report. The bones in her face were broken, and the left side was so swollen that it looked as if there were half a grapefruit under her skin. She could hardly speak, except to say “yes,” “no,” and, even more quietly, “I feel like it’s probably my fault” and “I’m pregnant.”

The following night, there was a lull in calls. As we drove through quiet streets, Skinner noted the eerie beauty of Savannah’s twisted oak trees, draped in Spanish moss and cloaked in fog. Then he noted the date, and went silent. It was December 30th—the eighth anniversary of the worst day of his life, the second-deadliest day in C.I.A. history.

After 9/11, the Bush Administration authorized the C.I.A. to use an array of abusive techniques, referred to as “enhanced interrogation,” on suspected Al Qaeda militants. Employees of the agency also kidnapped suspects and took them to third countries, where interrogations were outsourced to foreign intelligence services with abysmal human-rights records. That way, the C.I.A. could claim to have no knowledge of specific allegations of torture.

Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate is America’s closest counterterrorism partner in the Middle East. The U.S. funds and equips its operations, and the C.I.A. shares a counterterrorism center with the G.I.D., on the outskirts of the capital, Amman. According to Human Rights Watch, between 2001 and 2004 the C.I.A. transported at least fourteen terror suspects—often wearing only diapers and blindfolds—to a G.I.D. detention facility, where some of them were tortured until they confessed to crimes. A Yemeni detainee named Ali al-Sharqawi kept a secret diary. “Every time that the interrogator asks me about a certain piece of information, and I talk, he asks me if I told this to the Americans,” Sharqawi wrote. “And if I say no he jumps for joy, and he leaves me and goes to report it to his superiors, and they rejoice.”

In 2006, after another deployment in Afghanistan, Skinner was assigned to work at the C.I.A. station in Amman. He was relieved to be moving with his wife to a posting in a peaceful country. The agency’s use of black sites, rendition, and torture had become the subject of intense public scrutiny, and the enhanced-interrogation program, which relied heavily on contractors, had been scrapped. According to the C.I.A.’s inspector general, the torture sessions had extracted no actionable intelligence.

Skinner, like most case officers, got results through “rapport-based elicitation.” “You can build great relationships with some unsavory people,” he said. “In any terrorist group, there’s dysfunction, usually some jealousy. It’s literally a job—they get a salary. So you’re looking for the guy who feels underappreciated, the guy who’s getting dicked on expenses.”

In late 2008, the National Security Agency traced a prominent jihadi blogger to a desktop computer in a working-class neighborhood of Amman. The blogger posted grisly footage of American soldiers dying in Iraq, and he interpreted the words of bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, as if he had inside knowledge. “The speculation among his most ardent online followers was that he was a Saudi and very likely a senior official within Al Qaeda,” Joby Warrick writes in “The Triple Agent,” LINK his meticulous account of the case. The C.I.A. shared the blogger’s address with the G.I.D., and the case was taken up by one of Skinner’s close associates, a thirty-four-year-old Jordanian captain named Sharif Ali bin Zeid.

The man behind the computer—a young doctor from Jordan named Humam Khalil al-Balawi—seemed like an improbable fanatic. He spent his days treating women and children in a Palestinian refugee camp, and his evenings with his wife and daughters. He was a pious, mild-mannered introvert, with no apparent real-world jihadi connections, yet online he wrote as if he were plotting a suicide attack.

One night in January, 2009, the G.I.D. raided Balawi’s home and brought him in for interrogation. When they released him, three days later, “he was almost unrecognizable,” Warrick writes. “Jittery, sullen, distracted.” In the following weeks, bin Zeid took Balawi out for coffee and expensive meals. He thought that Balawi seemed malleable and weak, and that his online status within jihadi circles could be used in counterterrorism operations. If his help led to the capture or the death of high-level Al Qaeda members, bin Zeid told him, the reward would be staggering: the Americans were offering twenty-five million dollars for information that led them to Zawahiri.

In February, Balawi proposed to bin Zeid that he go to Pakistan’s tribal areas, make contact with members of the Pakistani Taliban, and ask for their help in setting up medical clinics. This cover would allow him to move freely within Taliban territory, and to send bin Zeid intelligence reports.

Bin Zeid brought Balawi’s plan to Skinner, and their agencies discussed it at length. Balawi had jihadi credibility, but he had no training in codes or tradecraft, and the agencies agreed that he would probably be found out and killed. Nevertheless, should the young doctor somehow pass along actionable intelligence against Al Qaeda, the C.I.A. would have drones ready to strike. In recent years, the agency’s vocabulary had shifted: a “target” was no longer someone to be recruited; it was somebody to be tracked, kidnapped, rendered, or killed.

On March 18th, Balawi left Amman. Two months later, he e-mailed bin Zeid that the Taliban had accepted him, and that he would serve as a personal physician to its leadership. In June, the C.I.A. assigned Skinner to a posting at the American Embassy in Baghdad, and Balawi’s file was transferred to his colleague and friend Darren LaBonte.

In late August, after months of silence, Balawi sent an encrypted video file that showed him in a room with one of bin Laden’s closest associates. Intelligence analysts were stunned. “You have lifted our heads in front of the Americans,” bin Zeid wrote to Balawi. It was the first time that the C.I.A. had ever penetrated Al Qaeda. Soon afterward, Balawi sent bin Zeid an e-mail saying that Zawahiri had sought him out to treat his diabetes. Bin Laden had been in hiding for so long that the C.I.A. believed that Zawahiri and Al Qaeda’s head of finance, Sheikh Saeed al-Masri, were actually running the group. But there had been no confirmed sightings of Zawahiri since 2002. The C.I.A. director, Leon Panetta, briefed President Obama on Balawi’s access, and the agency decided to try to debrief Balawi in person, at the C.I.A. annex at a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan.

In early December, LaBonte and bin Zeid left for Khost, where they met with Jennifer Matthews, a twenty-year agency veteran, and eleven other C.I.A. officers and security contractors. LaBonte preferred one-on-one debriefings, often in the back of a moving car, but Matthews and her bosses in Langley had decided to give Balawi a full welcoming committee. Since the meeting would take place a few days after Balawi’s birthday, Matthews instructed the base chef to bake a cake. The base was guarded by Afghan forces, but, fearing that they might report Balawi’s presence to the Taliban, Matthews ordered them to leave their posts.

Before the meeting, LaBonte was exchanging messages with Skinner, in Baghdad. LaBonte was upset with the C.I.A.’s disregard for its usual methods. He had argued with Matthews, and had sent a cable to the Amman station, but was rebuffed. A Jordanian intelligence officer warned the C.I.A. that bin Zeid had become too attached to his asset to make dispassionate assessments, but he, too, was ignored. The President had been told that the meeting was about to happen; no one wanted to hear that it shouldn’t.

As Balawi’s car approached the base, LaBonte told Skinner that he had to go. “Enjoy your meeting, Fuckface,” Skinner wrote back.

The car weaved through three unmanned barriers and approached the C.I.A. annex, where Matthews, LaBonte, and the others were waiting outside with Balawi’s cake. Balawi had some difficulty climbing out of the car. He started limping toward the greeting party, muttering a prayer, and then reached for a detonator attached to his wrist. There was enough time for everyone to understand what was about to happen, but not enough time for anyone to run away.

The explosion killed the driver, bin Zeid, and seven C.I.A. officers and contractors, including LaBonte and Matthews. In martyrdom videos that were released after the attack, Balawi explained that Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives had worked with him to pass along exclusive and accurate information, in order to win the C.I.A.’s trust.

The agency, in its desire to kill Al Qaeda targets, had overlooked a fundamental rule of espionage: that an ideologue can’t be turned, “even if he is offered the sun in one hand and the moon in the other,” as Balawi said in one of the videos. Coercion can work, but it also inspires revenge. Months later, an internal C.I.A. investigation described the attack as the result of “systemic failure” within the agency.

“We were chasing down this irresistible bait—this guy had actual, no-joke access to Zawahiri, the most wanted person on the fucking planet—and we fell for it because his intel was real,” Skinner told me. He added, “Those of us who make it out of these places—we’re not better, we’re luckier.”

In Baghdad, Skinner was mired in politics and violence. It had been six years since the American invasion and subsequent dismantling of the Iraqi Army had led to a full-blown insurgency. Skinner had spent many evenings in Amman drinking Johnnie Walker Black with Iraqi tribal sheikhs, trying to recruit their support. “These guys had fled the war and stolen all the Iraqi money,” he told me. “We would try to develop them as assets for what became ‘the surge.’ ” In 2007, Bush sent an additional twenty thousand troops to Iraq to quell the insurgency, but, two years later, car bombs were killing hundreds of civilians in Baghdad each month. The Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, was stacking the security forces with loyalists who carried out sectarian massacres. “We were focussed on Al Qaeda,” Skinner said. “He was focussed on Sunnis.”

Skinner felt isolated and alone. Theresa had stayed in Amman, and on Skinner’s next leave they rented a beach house on Tybee Island, outside Savannah. It was a welcome break, but not without stress. “Even when you’re on vacation, you still have people who are putting their lives at risk to get information for you,” Skinner told me. “If you fuck up, they’re dead. Everybody had assets who were killed.”

In June, 2010, Skinner completed his posting in Iraq. He and Theresa bought a house with a small garden in Savannah, near where he’d grown up. They moved in, and adopted a stray dog named Pork Chop. Skinner’s parents and one of his sisters had left Savannah years earlier, but he gradually persuaded them to move back. “It was my last act of recruitment—getting everyone in my family to come home,” he said.

Skinner took an extended leave of absence from the C.I.A., and then resigned. In 2011, he joined the Soufan Group, a private-sector intelligence-analysis firm that employs retired American and British security officials and spies. As the director of special projects, he advised governments and corporations on matters of geopolitics and risk, and offered public analysis in the form of unsigned “intel-briefs,” congressional testimony, and interviews with journalists. In 2014, when the Senate Intelligence Committee released its findings on the C.I.A.’s use of “enhanced interrogation,” Skinner wrote an op-ed for Time, describing torture as an “indefensible tactic” that is designed “to produce false confessions for propaganda purposes.”

That year, isis captured the Iraqi city of Mosul and beheaded aid workers and journalists on camera. As the United States became consumed with fear of the group, Skinner grew uneasy in his role. He fielded phone calls from reporters who seemed more interested in citing a former C.I.A. officer than in what he had to say. “One journalist called me up and said, ‘My deadline is in ten minutes, but isis is bad, right?’ ” Skinner recalled.

In March, 2016, while visiting his aunt in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he gave a lecture on terrorism at the local World Affairs Council. “We have become the most fragile superpower ever,” he told the audience. While Al Qaeda aims to carry out what its operatives call “spectacular attacks,” he explained, isis obsesses over creating a “spectacular reaction.” As an example, he recounted an incident in Garland, Texas, in which two wannabe jihadis were killed after attempting a raid on a provocative anti-Muslim convention. The men had no coherent affiliation with isis; they merely followed its instructions—which have been widely disseminated by the American media—to post online that they were acting on behalf of the group. “If you strip the word ‘terrorism,’ two idiots drove from Arizona and got shot in a parking lot,” Skinner said. The real threat to American life was the response. “We shut down cities,” he said. “We change our laws. We change our societies.” He went on, “We’re basically doing their work for them.”

“Getting killed by isis in Savannah is like expecting to get hit by a piano falling from an asteroid,” Skinner said. “It’s batshit insane. Day to day, it’s the people who are kicking in doors and stealing cars who are actually making life unbearable.”

Va urma

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