John Walker, the 20-year-old American who was found earlier this month fighting alongside the Taliban is presenting a challenge to the American intelligence establishment in more ways than one.
While he is said to be cooperating, Walker's very existence appears to be a blow to those already under pressure over the failure to detect the Sept. 11 plot that left 3,000 dead.
Critics explained the failure by pointing to an increasing reliance on SIGINT — expensive, satellite-gathered, signals intelligence — instead of HUMINT — old-fashioned tiptoeing-in-the-shadows human intelligence.
But the U.S. community of spies said such access was nearly impossible, considering the exclusive world that Muslim fundamentalists operate in.
In the week after the attacks, Cliff Van Zandt, a former FBI agent, expressed an opinion common to those in the intelligence community: "The CIA isn't really geared to develop a lot of assets to infiltrate groups like this," he told National Public Radio.
He said the alleged attackers came from "mostly [a] blood-tied family organization, clan organization that have known each other's families for generations."
"Somebody graduating from Yale and spending a couple years studying Urdu or something is not going to be very capable of infiltrating an organization like that."
A middle-class white kid who didn't have a college degree and — at first — spoke only a smattering of Arabic, shows that U.S. intelligence may actually have been aiming too high.
John Walker even claims to have been in the presence of Osama bin Laden.
Unusual, But Not Unexpected
Most intelligence experts acknowledged that it was unusual to see a white, English-speaking U.S. native among the Taliban, but also easily identified conditions which might have allowed him to join.
One of those bona fides, or proof of his sincerity, would probably have been his youth, they said.
At 20 years old, Walker's innocent confidence in Islamic fundamentalism could be credible, said Loch Johnson, author of Secret Agencies: U.S. Intelligence in a Hostile World.
"He was obviously naïve and they decided it was the real thing," he said.
Johnson added that U.S. officials have "never hired any American that young to work for the U.S. intelligence agencies. It's possible al Qaeda understood that."
Most intelligence operatives, especially those in the field, have some military experience, he said. For example, Mike Spann, the CIA interrogator who was killed in the same prison where Walker was discovered, was 32 years old and had served in the Marines before joining the agency.
Taliban officials might also ask Walker to do things that an American agent would be unable to do — like kill someone, experts said.
Other insular, hard-to-infiltrate organizations like the mafia and the Ku Klux Klan have in the past used similar tests, they said.
On the other hand, experts also raised the possibility that Walker, despite his support for the Sept. 11 attacks, and his claims of knowledge about future attacks, may have been an inconsequential part of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Dr. Tom Badey, of Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va., speculated that Walker "won't exactly be a gold mine in terms of info" — and U.S. officials have similarly dismissed what he has had to say about future attacks.