KABUL, Afghanistan — A suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers and contractors and wounded six others at an isolated CIA base in eastern Afghanistan Wednesday was a Taliban infiltrator dressed in an Afghan Army uniform, according to U.S. officials and a Taliban claim of responsibility.
It was the deadliest attack on the intelligence agency since the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, in April 1983. An eighth American, a civilian, was also killed.
The victims were working out Wednesday evening when the bomber stepped into the outpost's gym and triggered his explosive vest, the Taliban and U.S. military officials said Thursday.
The CIA confirmed the deaths of the seven, whom one U.S. official described as a "mix" of CIA employees and contractors. CIA director Leon Panetta said in a statement that the families of the dead had been notified, but that the victims' names and what they were doing in Afghanistan wouldn't be released "due to the sensitivity of their mission."
A U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, said that one of the dead was the female chief of the CIA's Forward Operating Base Chapman near the Pakistani border and key militant infiltration routes from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
"Those who fell yesterday were far from home and close to the enemy, doing the hard work that must be done to protect our country from terrorism," Panetta said. "We owe them our deepest gratitude, and we pledge to them and their families that we will never cease fighting for the cause to which they dedicated their lives — a safer America."
How the Taliban penetrated the base is under investigation. The Taliban said the bomber was a member of the Afghan Army, but U.S. officials said they didn't know if that was true. Afghan uniforms are frequently stolen, but CIA officials said that simply wearing an Afghan Army uniform wouldn't be enough to gain access to the base.
Officials were particularly surprised that Wednesday's attack took place at FOB Chapman, which a U.S. military official, who requested anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity, told McClatchy was "more secure than most." Whether the CIA workers were targeted also was unknown.
In addition to the CIA base, FOB Chapman — named for the first American soldier killed in Afghanistan in 2002 — is the headquarters for a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team that works with local Afghan officials on development projects. It recently was visited by a woodwind quintet from the 82nd Airborne Division, which gave a holiday concert, according to the official U.S. Army Bands Web site.
The attack, and a separate bombing in southern Afghanistan Wednesday that killed five Canadians, one of them a journalist, underscored the Taliban's growing range and aggressiveness at a time of year when hostile action generally slows.
Violence has been rising here in what some commanders think is the Taliban's response to President Barack Obama's recent decision to deploy 30,000-35,000 additional troops by next summer and set a July 2011 date to begin their withdrawal. The pace of Taliban attacks is higher than it was last winter, and some U.S. officers fear that the announcement of a withdrawal date may have given the Taliban confidence that they can wait out the surge.
The suicide bomber's possible status as a member of the Afghan Army also raised concerns. A key U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is increasing the size of the Afghan army — a goal that could make it easier for Taliban sympathizers to join an expanding force as it seeks recruits.
The attack also is likely to exacerbate tensions between U.S. and Afghan troops, who live adjacent to one another and often conduct joint missions. Privately, soldiers already talk about their distrust of the Afghans.
Last week, for example, soldiers from the Georgia National Guard leaving their base in Nangahar province joked that the Afghan guarding the gate was "probably calling up his friends and telling them where we are headed."
The Taliban on Thursday also took responsibility for another incident this week in which an Afghan soldier opened fire on foreign troops. An American was killed, and two Italians were wounded in the incident, which took place on Tuesday in Badghis province.
The CIA has been active for years in eastern Afghanistan, where it's conducted covert operations since late 2001 in an effort to kill or capture al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, who's thought to have escaped from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
The attack on the Canadians came in Kandahar province, which long has been the heart of Taliban activity and is one of the country's most violent regions. One company of the 2nd Infantry Division's 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team from Fort Lewis, Wash., has lost a quarter of its forces since it was deployed there a few months ago.
U.S. plans call for the bulk of the new troops headed to Afghanistan to be deployed in Kandahar, which has been the Canadians' responsibility since 2005. Canada's 2,800-troop force, however, has been too small to exert control outside Kandahar city, Afghanistan's largest.
NATO officials said the five died when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb near Kandahar city.
Four of the dead were Canadian soldiers whose names haven't been released. The fifth was Michelle Lang, 34, a reporter for the Calgary Herald. Lang, who normally covers health issues for the paper, was on her first trip to Afghanistan.
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