WASHINGTON – Whoever provided the initial leak to the Associated Press in April 2012 not only broke the law but caused the abrupt end to a secret, joint U.S./Saudi/British operation in Yemen that offered valuable intelligence against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
One goal was to get AQAP’s operational head, Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso. That happened one day before the AP story appeared.
A second goal was to find and possibly kill AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, whose first underwear device almost killed Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism chief. Soon after, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab used such a device in a failed Christmas Day bombing attempt as his Northwest Airlines flight was landing in Detroit.
The drone attack that killed Quso hadn’t occurred when AP reporters were checking out the leak and contacting government officials. Acting responsibly, the AP withheld its story for several days at the government’s request. Lives were at stake, officials said.
What happened afterward illustrates a sad state of affairs — within government (which can’t control critical secrets), the White House (which offered more information to shield itself from a wrong impression created by the AP story), politics (where every event during a presidential race becomes political fodder) and the press (which screams First Amendment at any attempt to investigate it).
There is a natural tension between journalists and the government over national security. There are many examples of administrations misusing secrecy to hide failures or promote successes. And there may be as many times when bad stories hurt clandestine operations.
Hitting targets in the United States is one of AQAP’s goals. In association with Saudi intelligence, the CIA inserted a Saudi who convinced AQAP that he wanted to be a suicide bomber.
Eventually he was outfitted with Asiri’s newest device, which he was to use on a U.S. aircraft. After the device was delivered to U.S. officials, someone or several people leaked the information to the AP.
As journalists and politicians focus on what they say are too-broad subpoenas for records of 21 phone lines for AP offices and individuals, what’s lost is the damaging and criminal leak.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s initial comment to reporters last week that “it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen” has been rejected. Journalists have heard that over the years.
This is different. The AP was working on a story where lives really could be at risk. Also at risk were the relationships among U.S., Saudi and British intelligence.
The AP responsibly held its story for five days when informed of national security issues. Although the news organization was informed about only part of the operation, the reality was that intelligence officials believed it had to be closed down immediately.
The AP story, when it first appeared, made no mention of how the U.S. obtained the new type of bomb. But by describing the event as the CIA halting an AQAP suicide-bombing plot, the story turned a clever clandestine operation into a negative political issue for the White House during the presidential campaign.
How? The AP story tied the foiling of an AQAP plot to White House press secretary Jay Carney’s statement the week before that assured “the American public that [the administration] knew of no al-Qaida plots against the U.S. around the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.” The AP story implied that Carney’s statement was untrue. But Carney was right. This was a CIA ruse, not a terrorist-initiated plot.
Even during a “Face the Nation” appearance Sunday, AP President Gary Pruitt described the AP story as the U.S. thwarting “an al-Qaida plot to place a bomb on an airliner” and Carney as being “misleading to the American public.”
From the start, the AP placed the plot in the wrong context.
Responding after the AP story, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan held a media backgrounder to reassure the public that the U.S. was somehow “in control” of the situation. That triggered other media inquiries, which led to the administration explaining the Saudi double agent and other details. The authorized leak was to control political damage. It was inevitable that the leak to the AP would generate an FBI probe.
Given past leak investigations in the Bush and Obama administrations, journalists at the AP and elsewhere know they could face scrutiny. Like it or not, they are part of a crime. The leaker or leakers had taken an oath under the threat of prosecution to protect the information.
The current probe, after almost a year of exhausting other avenues, followed Justice Department guidelines and issued grand jury subpoenas for AP phone records. Did they overreach? There were five reporters and one editor listed on the initial story working out of different AP offices.
Should the AP have been told in advance so it could try to quash the subpoenas? It could have delayed the inquiry for years.
Having found my phone records caught up in criminal and civil case probes, such actions from government officials should not be a surprise.
But how many times can the media claim such an action is “chilling sources?” That was a claim during the Valerie Plame case under the Bush administration and repeatedly invoked as the Obama Justice Department has pursued leakers.
The risk of breaking the law apparently didn’t chill those who leaked the information to the AP.
This is not a whistle-blower case. There are no heroes here, and the press was not protecting individuals trying to expose government malfeasance.
Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post and writes the Fine Print column.