Opinion

Jack Shafer

Why the underwear-bomber leak infuriated the Obama administration

By Jack Shafer
May 16, 2013

Journalists gasp and growl whenever prosecutors issue lawful subpoenas ordering them to divulge their confidential sources or to turn over potential evidence, such as notes, video outtakes or other records. It’s an attack on the First Amendment, It’s an attack on the First Amendment, It’s an attack on the First Amendment, journalists and their lawyers chant. Those chants were heard this week, as it was revealed that Department of Justice prosecutors had seized two months’ worth of records from 20 office, home and cell phone lines used by Associated Press journalists in their investigation into the Yemen underwear-bomber leaks.

First Amendment radicals — I count myself among them — resist any and all such intrusions: You can’t very well have a free press if every unpublished act of journalism can be co-opted by cops, prosecutors and defense attorneys. First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams speaks for most journalists when he denounces the “breathtaking scope” of the AP subpoenas. But the press’s reflexive protests can prevent it from seeing the story in full, which I think is the case in the current leaks investigation.

(Disclosure: About 50 news organizations, including my employer, Reuters, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder objecting to the subpoenas.)

The Obama administration has already used the Espionage Act to prosecute more government officials for leaking than all of his predecessors put together, but we shouldn’t automatically lump its pursuit of the underwear-bomb leaker in with those cases. Perhaps this investigation is chasing an extra-extraordinary leak, and the underwear-bomber leak is but one of the drops.

The AP story that has so infuriated the government described the breakup of an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula plot to place an underwear bomber on board a U.S.-bound airliner. Published on the afternoon of May 7, 2012, the story patted itself on the back for having heeded the White House and CIA requests to not publish the previous week, when the AP first learned of the operation. The AP states in the article that it published only after being told by “officials” that the original “concerns were allayed.” In a chronology published in today’s Washington Post, we’re told that the CIA was no longer resisting publication of the AP story on the day it hit the wire (Monday) and that the White House was planning to “announce the successful counterterrorism operation that Tuesday.”

That may be the case, but the government was still incensed by the leak. In fact, it appears that officials were livid. As my Reuters colleagues Mark Hosenball and Tabassum Zakaria reported last night, the government found the leak so threatening that it opened a leak investigation before the AP ran its story.

Now, what would make the Obama administration so furious? My guess is it wasn’t the substance of the AP story that has exasperated the government but that the AP found a source or sources that spilled information about an ongoing intelligence operation and that even grander leaks might surge into the press corps’ rain barrels.

At the risk of making the Department of Justice’s argument for it, a leak once sprung can turn into a gusher as the original leakers keep talking and new ones join them, or as the government attempts to explain itself, or as others in the government begin to speak out of turn. From what I can tell, all of the above happened after the AP story appeared.

As Reuters reported a week and a half after the AP scoop, the White House sought to spin the AP story immediately after its publication. “At about 5:45 p.m. EDT on Monday, May 7, just before the evening newscasts, John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top White House adviser on counterterrorism, held a small, private teleconference to brief former counterterrorism advisers who have become frequent commentators on TV news shows,” Reuters’ Hosenball wrote.

One of the participants in the conference caller, President Clinton’s former counterterrorism chief, Richard Clarke, proceeded to milk and re-milk the conference call over the next two days in his role as an ABC News contributor.

I don’t mean to suggest that Clarke “leaked” sensitive information from the Brennan conference call. Rather, he repeated what he was told about the operation. And once he started talking, his comments widened the AP’s rivulet into a 10-inch water main. On the May 7, 2012, edition of World News Tonight With Diane Sawyer, Clarke said:

The U.S. government is saying [the bombing plot] never came close because they had insider information, insider control.

That was new news. The AP story said nothing about an insider, an infiltrator or a double agent.

The May 7 Nightline ran a slightly longer clip of Clarke in which he said:

The U.S. government is saying it never came close because they had insider information, insider control, which implies that they had somebody on the inside who wasn’t going to let it happen.

“Insider information.” “Insider control.” “Somebody on the inside.” Gee, you don’t suppose Clarke was implying that the U.S. had infiltrated al Qaeda to stymie the underwear-bomb plot, do you?

Clarke had more to say the next morning, on a May 8, 2012, Good Morning America appearance:

You have to wonder if this plot was foiled by someone on the inside, whether or not that means that source is blown, and therefore they no longer have someone on the inside and would not know about the next plot.

And in his May 8, 2012, World News Tonight With Diane Sawyer, appearance, Clarke said:

It’s quite an accomplishment to be able to pass yourself off as an al Qaeda terrorist to the terrorists when, in fact, you’re working for a U.S. or allied intelligence agency.

Clarke wasn’t the only one expanding the AP’s original story, which was mute about infiltration or double agents or the participation of another intelligence agency. On the morning of May 8, 2012, Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, shared what the Obama administration was telling him on Soledad O’Brien’s morning CNN, much in the way Clarke had shared. Here’s their exchange:

O’BRIEN: There was a drone attack that was able to kill Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso. Are these two things linked? The drone attack over the weekend that was by U.S. accounts successful, and foiling this plot?

KING: Yes, I was told by the White House they are connected, they’re part of the same operation, and that’s why I said this operation is still ongoing.

Fahd al-Quso — of whom O’Brien and King speak, had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head and was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list for, among other things, his role in the bombing of the USS Cole — was killed in a May 6 CIA drone strike in Yemen’s Shabwa province. Although the killing of al-Quso was mentioned in the AP story, it made no connection between the foiled plot and al-Quso’s death. But now thanks to Clarke, who was briefed by White House aide Brennan, and King, who also claims to have been briefed by the White House, the world learned that the underwear bomber plot had been undone by a double agent inside al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The press advanced the story. The Los Angeles Times (“Al Qaeda bomb plot foiled by double agent,” May 9) claimed that the double agent who handed off the underwear bomb to authorities was working in cooperation with Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency. The New York Times (“Airline Plotter A Double Agent, U.S. Officials Say,” May 9, published on the Web May 8) similarly claimed that the double agent “was actually an intelligence agent for Saudi Arabia” and “operated in Yemen with the full knowledge of the CIA but not under its direct supervision, the officials said.”

The Wall Street Journal (“Bomber Plotter Was Informer,” May 9) reported that the double agent answered “to a foreign intelligence service that works in concert with the CIA. Saudi intelligence officials played ‘a large role’ in handling of the double agent inside AQAP, this official said.” Upon convincing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that he would complete the suicide attack, the double agent was given the bomb. Instead of detonating it, he gave the bomb and new intelligence about the group to intelligence officials.

NBC News (“Spy who uncovered underwear bomb plot is British national, sources say,” May 10) maintained that the double agent held a British passport and that multiple “security services” had participated in the operation, including that of Saudi Arabia. Reuters (“British played central role in foiled bomb operation: sources,” May 10) gave British intelligence services MI5 and MI6 “a central role” in the operation. (MI5 is the U.K.’s domestic security agency. MI6 is its CIA equivalent.) The Telegraph (“British secret agent was al-Qaeda mole who cracked new ‘underpants’  bomb plot,” May 10) reported that the double agent was recruited by MI5 and MI6, and worked with the Saudis on the operation.

Echoing King’s comments on CNN, the New York Times, NBC News, the Telegraph and the Los Angeles Times reported that the double agent (or the double-agent operation) had helped the CIA’s drone find and kill Al-Quso.

What not for the U.S. government to like here?

To begin with, the perpetrators of a successful double-agent operation against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would not want to brag about their coup for years. Presumably, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will now use the press reports to walk the dog back to determine whose misplaced trust allowed the agent to penetrate it. That will make the next operation more difficult. Other intelligence operations — and we can assume they are up and running — may also become compromised as the press reports give al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula new clues.

Likewise, the next time the CIA or foreign intelligence agency tries to recruit a double agent, the candidate will judge his handlers wretched secret keepers, regard the assignment a death mission and seek employment elsewhere.

Last, the leaks of information — including those from the lips of Brennan, Clarke and King — signal to potential allies that America can’t be trusted with secrets. “Leaks related to national security can put people at risk,” as Obama put it today in a news conference.

The ultimate audience for the leaks investigation may not be domestic but foreign. Obviously, the government wants to root out the secretspillers. But a country can’t expect foreign intelligence agencies to cooperate if it blows cover of such an operation. I’d wager that the investigations have only begun.

******

Leak to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Or play the double agent with my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder addresses reporters at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, May 14, 2013. Holder was likely to face a storm of questions on Tuesday over the Justice Department’s controversial decision to seize telephone records of the Associated Press, a move denounced by critics as a gross intrusion into freedom of the press.   REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Comments
12 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Well played, Jack. I wish more responsible journalists recognized that it’s not always about them. Just because they can publish and we can know something it doesn’t mean it’s in our best interest to know it. Who benefits from the details of the original leak and the subsequent flood?

Posted by BenMC | Report as abusive
 

If Mr. Brennan reveals the operation to a number of newsman how can that be said to be leaking? Brennan was already Bush’s torture oversee-er, no? Now he is the head of an organization that has done more damage to the fortunes of the USA and the world than any other. Which, under Casey/ Reagan created the world wide Mujahedim – a genii that no one can put back in the bottle. The CIA destabilied Afghanistan in 1979, it overthrew Mossadegh in 1953 was it, it overthrew the Guatemalen democracy in 1954… it’s endless the crimes the CIA has committed… and the are worried about leaks? Give me a break.

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive
 

you really think there’s such a thing as an underwear bomber?

Posted by CyrilPenn | Report as abusive
 

I hope Brennan can keep his mouth shut better at the CIA.

I am sick of these “former counterterrorism experts” all over the tube. They need to go out and get real jobs. But, I bet the REAL leaks came from the Congress. Those guys crave the TV lights and their words in quotes like rednecks crave meth. Maybe, the same guy who gave Jonathan Karl the doctored Benghazi email?

MIKEROL: You fail to mention the connections all those old CIA operations have to the religio-business-political-military cabal The Family/The Fellowship/C Street and its Congressional members over the last 65 years.
Just last week Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s buddy Efrain Rios Montt was convicted of Guatemalan genocide. Have not been able to link him up to his US Congress buddies yet.

Posted by emm305 | Report as abusive
 

I expect the only reason Barry was ticked off is it meant he couldn’t stand in front of the cameras, teleprompter at his side, and preen.

Posted by zombietimeshare | Report as abusive
 

Isn’t there already a precedent within the Obama administration that you reveal the details of a covert operation as soon as it is completed. Thus, by the President discussing the details of the Osama Bin Laden assasination, including Seal Team 6, and then releasing even more details to Hollywood to make a movie, he violated standard protocol as mentioned above, that you never discuss details of how you secured the information, the attack plan or other confidential information.

In fact, the President was so motivated to get on the podium “I killed Osama” that we could not get the Pakistani doctor out of the country before the Paki secret police nabbed him. The informant is now in a Paki prison. Same goes for Brennan and his relationship with Richard Clarke. Unless Clarke is in the employ of the NSA or CIA, his need to know is not any greater than a citizen on the street. Besides, he should better understand the impacts of “connecting the dots” on news reports.

It’s difficult enough to ensure that the intelligence employees on duty are not compromised, but when you have the “leadership” embellishing the accomplishments to anyone that will listen, you effectively put every operation at risk and every employee in danger. Good thing these guys were not around during WW2, as they would have published the breaking of the German code on the front page of the NY Times.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive
 

So the administration incompetently leaks information by way of it’s attempt to spin the story (Brennan being Richard Clarke’s source for the inside information) and then, the administration seeks to scapegoat the AP and it’s source for their cluster#$&? So in other words, it is imperative that the government crack down on all leakers and impair the ability of the press to seek the truth, because this might make the government divulge information that will seriously impair national security? LOL

Posted by ochun005 | Report as abusive
 

“Perhaps this investigation is chasing an extra-extraordinary leak, and the underwear-bomber leak is but one of the drops.” The only extraordinary thing about this was that the leak came directly from the administration and that you seem to think that somehow this might be totally unrelated to the administration’s persecution of all whistleblowers.

Posted by ochun005 | Report as abusive
 

If you want to plug a leak, you don’t call the AG;, you call “G. Joubert”!

Posted by askeptic | Report as abusive
 

Everyone leaks in D.C. Doesn’t matter if they’re Democrat, Republican, DoD, DoS, Treasury, CIA, NSA, etc… It’s like a friggin’ sport in that town. I was in the Horn of Africa when the U.S. used a drone with a Hellfire missile to kill an AQ target in Yemen, back in 2002. The whole program was extremely classified, and stayed that way for about a day following that strike, when Paul Wolfowitz spilled the whole operation to some CNN reporter.

That is just one instance I remember, I could go on and on with regards to this subject. I do thinks it’s funny that the Obama administration is prosecuting leakers. If Obama was actually serious about punishing leakers, he’d have to fire about 50% of his current staff, to possibly include the VP himself. Don’t hold you’re breath waiting for that, though. Rules are for the little people (just ask Sandy Berger, anyone lower in the food chain would have been thrown in jail for what he did).

One last thought: Remember the volcanic outrage over Scooter Libby and the whole Valerie Plame brouhaha? Think we’ll see the press baying for blood over counter-terrorism leaks in a similar fashion? Yeah, I know, me neither, but one can dream…

Posted by PaveLowJohn | Report as abusive
 

I think the back story has something to do with FRUIT OF THE LOOM – it must be stockholder there who is unhappy wit this profusion of underwear bombers who never mention the nane of his firm, what if this gets to be like the smuggling of cocaine? where all that was stuffed once upon a time and perhaps still!

and then a reply to emm305
It would be wonderful to have a report on the CIA activities not only in Bengazi but in all of North Africa since shortly before the inception of the so-called “Arab Spring” – after all, if there is an organ of the US government that has caused this country and the entire world more grief than any other I certainly cannot think of it. From the overthrow of Mossadegh and of Guatemalan democracy to the destabilizaton of Aghanistan, the creation of the world wide Mujaheddin under CIA CASEY/ Reagan, all the “intelligence” it purveyed on Vietnam, its activities in Laos, its intelligence on Iraq – is there an organization in this country that deserves the nme CENTRAL STUPIDITY AGENCY, the CIA is it – just dwell on the consequences of its actions! –
and many members of that service, especially via the Brookings Institute, purvey their propaganda also on the New York Times Op-Ed pages. http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2013  /05/20/there-just-has-to-be-a-scandal-s omewhere/?ref=opinion

Posted by MIKEROL | Report as abusive
 

I guess the problem here is that the Administration gave talking points that weren’t total nonsense like the conservatives do/did and the people receiving the talking points put two and two together and screamed four! I like Dick Clarke, he seems candid and real (though his obligatory pot-shots at Bush are getting old at this point) but he probably did over-step himself here. I know his zeal was just to show how ‘great’ Obama was doing compared to Bush in counter-terrorism but he should’ve known better.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive
 

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