The brazen attack that killed seven CIA employees at a remote outpost in Afghanistan is likely to raise questions about whether the agency could do more to protect its operatives on dangerous assignments.
Lawmakers on Thursday issued their condolences and withheld any judgment. But officials said they expected an eventual inquiry as to whether the CIA should re-examine how it deploys individuals in hostile regions and the lengths operatives are allowed to go to get information.
"We owe these brave men and women, and their families who are forever impacted, our deepest appreciation and thanks," said Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, the House Intelligence Committee chairman who had met with the CIA team on a recent trip to Afghanistan.
Wednesday's bombing was a devastating blow to the tightknit spy community. Among the seven CIA employees killed was the chief of the CIA post, whom former officials identified as a mother of three. Six more agency personnel were wounded in what was considered the most lethal attack for the CIA since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001 and possibly even since the 1983 embassy bombing in Beirut.
The Taliban claimed responsibility, with a spokesman saying the bomber had been an Afghan National Army officer who blew himself up inside a gym at the base. U.S. officials would not confirm that the bomber had been a member of the Afghan army, leaving open the possibility that the uniform had been stolen.
Two former U.S. officials told The Associated Press that the man had been invited onto the base and had not been searched. One of the officials, a former senior intelligence employee, said the man was being courted as an informant and that it was the first time he had been brought inside the camp.
Another U.S. official, a former CIA employee, said it's not uncommon for an operative to forgo additional security if it means gaining a potential informant's trust.
"When you're trying to build a rapport and literally ask them to risk his life for you, you've got a lot to do to build their trust," the former employee said.
"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 Thursday in a statement confirming the deaths. "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."
In a letter to CIA employees, Obama said their fallen colleagues came from a "long line of patriots" who had helped to keep the nation safe despite grave risks.
Harold E. Brown Jr. of Fairfax, Va., was among the dead, according to his father, Harold E. Brown Sr. The elder Brown said his 37-year-old son, who grew up in Bolton, Mass., served in the Army and worked for the State Department. He is survived by a wife and three children ages 12, 10 and 2.
The CIA did not release information about the victims, citing the sensitivity of their mission and other ongoing operations.