News media claim to have uncovered the true story behind headlines involving a would-be bomber in Yemen, who was allegedly developing a more sophisticated underwear bomb that could be used for a terror attack. The Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and New York Times all in the span of twenty-four hours managed to speak with sources that confirmed an international sting operation had been unfolding. Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency and the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were cooperating and the would-be bomber was an informant tasked with convincing al Qaeda to give him the new and improved bomb so he could hand it over to the United States.
Former CIA case officer Robert Baer appeared on CNN during Anderson Cooper’s primetime show and called what the CIA did “brilliant.” He said, “This is a classic intelligence operation,” and what they did is they recruited the informant and “ran him back into the group,” the group ran by Ibrahim Hassan Asiri, who the US believes was behind the development of the bomb used in the failed Christmas Day attack in 2009. But, noting that there might be more bombs out there that the CIA was trying to seize, he said, “I think it’s unfortunate this was leaked because this is a source and they’re really, really hard to come by.”
At this point, one can only speculate about the nature of the operation—how much control the CIA had over the informant, what role the informant played in the group, whether the informant infiltrated the group on behalf of the CIA from the beginning or was flipped, whether the CIA or Saudi intelligence agency provided the plot, whether it was the group’s technicians that devised the bomb, whether the plot was similar to FBI entrapment schemes used against Muslim-Americans, etc. What is clear is the press and public were not supposed to know about this operation yet, but “sources” within the US government leaked information without authorization.
Rep. Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, whose chief role in Congress seems to be to ensure Americans are always fearful that some group wants to kill Americans now, was horrified by the leaking. He was so horrified that, when he appeared on Anderson Cooper’s show on CNN last night, he restrained himself from going into too many details about what happened and why all Americans should be very, very afraid:
COOPER: Congressman King, the would-be suicide bomber is actually a double agent. What can you tell us about it and about him?
KING: Anderson, I’m in a position I really can’t tell you very much at all. I’ve been briefed on this. As far as I know this has not been in any way declassified by the CIA or by the administration. And it’s really — it’s unfortunate that this has gotten out because this could really interfere with operations overseas.
And sorry to do this, I really cannot comment on any of those details. I know it’s out there, I know it’s being reported, and I also was at a briefing this afternoon with top officials, and there’s a really great concern that this got out. This is — my understanding is a major investigation is going to be launched because of this. [emphasis added]
King added the operation was “one of the most sophisticated and successful intelligence operations that I have been aware of. I have never seen anything so tightly held. It was held as close — as close as anything I have ever seen. And that’s why the leak when it broke, I guess about a week ago, really put a lot — put a lot of risk including human lives, and even now the fact that it’s coming out can be dangerous.”
Former FBI agent Ali Soufan was also on Anderson Cooper’s show and he, too, expressed concern about the leaks:
COOPER: So why does somebody leak this? I mean if this is — assuming that people leak this, are people who have direct knowledge of the operation, people who are in the law enforcement community, or in the intelligence community, why would they leak it?
SOUFAN: Well, I agree with what Representative King said and I think they should have an investigation about this. I did undercover al Qaeda related cases and I know how dangerous it is when you are with a group and they can kill you in a second and they know that you’re a federal agent, and you’re a source on other government. It is very dangerous and that you have to keep your eye on the ball and you have to go back to your family. So doing something like this for any reason, even if just to make the American people happy that we’re winning against al Qaeda is very selfish in so many different ways. [emphasis added]
Above is video of Baer and Soufan on “Anderson Cooper” last night.
Anyone that follows how the bulk of defense or national security information becomes public understands much of it comes from what is often referred to as “selective leaking.” Officials that will not put their name to comments or statements talk to the press and provide details on covert drone operations, foiled terror plots, secret activities going on in wars, etc. People in the press, who work for establishment media, win over these “sources.” Their job depends on “selective leaking,” as it is how they get scoops like this scoop about the CIA having an informant. It is why Barbara Starr and Fran Townsend go on TV—to parrot without question the details that were given to them and profess fealty for the national defense and security state of America.
In this instance, it does not appear anyone was authorized to share details with the media. It looks like the leaks were all done to put on a dog-and-pony show and demonstrate something to the world. The leaks may have even been part of wagging the dog, getting people to pay attention to something less important while something of greater importance unfolded.
Either way, the leaks were not part of some Obama administration plan to use the operation for political gain. The Obama administration had Bin Laden Week last week and selectively leaked details on the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which led to the execution of the Al Qaeda leader. They already demonstrated Obama is tough on national security and worthy of re-election. So, it seems clear there is some internal war over control and positioning in the “war on terrorism” that played out here and led to the leaks.
The plot reportedly led to authorization for the drone strike that killed Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Quso, a top Al Qaeda operative in Yemen, an individual who was on the FBI’s most wanted list for his alleged involvement in the USS Cole bombing in 2000. The CIA has been pushing for expanded authority to conduct “signature strikes” in Yemen, which basically means anyone who looks like a militant or member of a group affiliated with al Qaeda they would like to be able to strike with a drone. It is known that there have been internal squabbles in the Obama administration over how much oversight they should have over the CIA’s “kill lists.”
With the expanded authority, was that supposed to come with additional executive review or oversight over potential targets for strikes in Yemen? Would revealing that there was a controlled sting operation show the process for how the CIA gains intelligence for drone strikes and, perhaps, help calm critics within the administration that want more involvement in counterterrorism operations?
The AP learned about this plot last week, but, according to Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo, “agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP decided to disclose the plot Monday despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement Tuesday.” It was so “secret” that “top lawmakers were not told about it as the operation unfolded.” Yet, someone (or some people) went to the media with details.
Whatever the political goal of the leaks may be, they are leaks. The Obama administration has waged a war on whistleblowers and indicted six people under the Espionage Act: John Kiriakou, former CIA agent, who is accused of leaking the “identity” of a CIA officer and revealed details on waterboarding; former NSA employee Thomas Drake, who shared details on the agency’s warrantless wiretapping program; former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, who was charged with providing information with New York Times reporter James Risen on an operation that might have led to Iran getting information on how to build a nuclear bomb; former FBI linguist Shamai Leibowitz, who received twenty months in prison for who knows what exactly; former State Department arms expert Stephen Kim, who under assignment shared information with Fox News reporter James Rosen on North Korea’s possible response to criticism of the country’s nuclear program; and Pfc. Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked classified information to WikiLeaks that included the “Collateral Murder” video, Afghan and Iraq War Logs, the US State Embassy cables, etc.
The administration has also gone after State Department employee Peter Van Buren. The State Department has moved to fire him for linking to a WikiLeaks cable in a blog post and publishing a tell-all book on the State Department’s Iraq reconstruction program. And, the Obama administration has also gone after whistleblowers by using prepublication review boards to hinder the release of books revealing government operations, including crimes, fraud, misconduct or waste.
Obviously, if men who blew the whistle are to be targeted, individuals who leak details when a covert operation is not completed yet must be investigated, prosecuted and brought to justice. None of the men indicted under the Espionage Act revealed operations that were in progress. But, in this case, one or more individuals in or connected to the CIA leaked operational information to the press.
This is not all that different from what the CIA does when it leaks details about the drone program. Unnamed officials routinely “selectively leak” details on the “covert” program to build support for expanding the program or to reassure the public that the program is not illegal or conducted without restraint. This is done as the CIA argues in court the program is “secret” and they can neither confirm or deny the existence of documents on the program that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups are trying to get released through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit.
Is it acceptable for anyone in government who wishes to show government agencies are doing their job to leak classified information? Is it acceptable for these people to be able to whip the press into a frenzy and get them to provide great PR designed to prop up counterterrorism operations and ensure the fight against al Qaeda continues with certain players at the helm? Is this acceptable while the Obama administration is prosecuting whistleblowers and endangering press freedom to a greater extent than any presidential administration in history because they released classified information without authorization?
As the truth around the CIA’s sting operation surfaces, as we begin to find out how much this is used in counterterrorism operations, the leaking that occurred here should be a part of the discussion too. It should because the six people indicted under the Espionage Act have had their lives wrecked. They have given up security in their careers so that Americans can know the truth about how America “protects” national security. They have been made to pay the price, and people should be appalled that they would have to pay while people who leak so they can get a massive stroke job from the press and public, get to continue along their career paths without being held responsible for doing something that is much more concerning.
Now, as of 12 pm EST, CNN International is reporting this story with the leaks on the “bomb plot mole” as the headline. The story includes part of what King said last night and also a comment from another congressman in their story:
…Lawmakers said more such devices may exist, and House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, said the release of information about the device could complicate an effort to seal the long-term threat.
“If something bad happens because it was leaked too early, that’s a catastrophe and it’s also a crime,” Rogers told CNN.
An espionage investigation should be launched immediately. But, at this point, no investigation is being reported so let’s assume the Obama administration does not find this to be leaking that should be punished. This likely means any effort to punish leakers will come from the Republicans and may be cast as partisan, even if there is merit to congressmen wanting an investigation, if the Obama Justice Department does not support an investigation.
Additionally, the media is reporting the informant was a “double agent.” Gordon Corera of BBC News on why that term is being used incorrectly. He also provides further insight into the operation. And he concludes the CIA sting operation “mirrors” FBI operations against Muslim-Americans in the United States.
“The Alyona Show” on RT had a good segment with The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf that looked at the CIA sting operation from the angle of the leaks.