The notion that news reports—journalism—effectively alerted al Qaeda leaders that their communications were being monitored by US intelligence was legitimized by the New York Times on Monday, when it published statements purely from anonymous US officials containing such allegations. The Times implicated McClatchy Newspapers as being responsible and now the media organization has responded with a news report of its own.
In August, it was reported that Ayman al-Zawahri, head of al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), were discussing plans for a possible terrorist attack. Apparently the terrorists are no longer using a “major communications channel” the officials monitored to intercept messages or conversations between al Qaeda leaders and the “damage” is worse than any “damage” caused by disclosures from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
Who is to blame? Journalists.
Little to no evidence is in the story to support the claims the Times published. The claims also seem a bit spontaneous and half-hatched, too.
One “United States official” said, “‘The switches weren’t turned off, but there has been a real decrease in quality’ of communications.” Another “senior American official” (which may or may not be the same as a “United States official” said, “It was something that was immediate, direct and involved specific people on specific communications about specific events.” Yet, in the next few paragraphs, one sees a statement from an anonymous US counterterrorism official, who counters, “The bad guys are just not going to talk operational planning electronically.”
The flimsiness did not stop an editor from choosing to not publish the story. It also did not stop an editor from publishing a story that explicitly singled out McClatchy:
McClatchy Newspapers first reported on the conversations between Mr. Zawahri and Mr. Wuhayshi on Aug. 4. Two days before that, The New York Times agreed to withhold the identities of the Qaeda leaders after senior American intelligence officials said the information could jeopardize their operations. After the government became aware of the McClatchy article, it dropped its objections to The Times’s publishing the same information, and the newspaper did so on Aug. 5.
Nowhere in the story does it suggest that McClatchy was ever contacted for comment. That courtesy was apparently never extended or, if it was extended, the newspaper neglected to mention they had reached out to the media organization for comment but McClatchy declined to react to the anonymous officials’ allegations.
McClatchy’s response, written by Lindsay Wise and Adam Baron, a top-notch reporter who is based in Yemen, makes multiple key points.
After this al Qaeda chatter was reported, the United States closed 19 US diplomatic facilities or embassies. If US intelligence did not want to call attention to the news reports because they did not want al Qaeda to know they were paying attention, they probably should not have called attention to the intercepted information by shutting down so many facilities, some which were never going to be endangered at all.
McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief James Asher stated, “In the nearly two months since McClatchy had published its story, no US agency has contacted the newspaper company about the article or has asked any questions about the origins of the story.” He also said, “Multiple sources inside and outside of the Yemeni government confirmed our reporting and not one of them told us not to publish the facts.” But, now, suddenly, officials are using the pages of the Times to smear the journalism of McClatchy.
Many in Yemen knew about the communication before McClatchy published the story. That a conversation was being talked about in the country was newsworthy.
What really has contributed to the decline in communications, according to Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen and other observers, is the escalation in the use of drone strikes that occurred after the aftermath of the embassy alerts. There also has been a “Yemeni military offensive against AQAP-affiliated militants in the southern Abyan province” that is likely disrupting operations significantly. “Use of electronic communication pre-dated the August embassy plot,” they said. However, none of what has been actually happening on the ground in Yemen seems to have been factored into the Times story.
Not only did the Times use the story to single out McClatchy but it conveniently amplified the statements of US government officials that had been alleging Snowden has done damage to the ability of US intelligence agencies to effectively engage in counterterrorism operations as well. [*Note: These allegations were given credence at the same time that the Times has partnered with The Guardian to publish stories on Snowden’s disclosures.]
It is not any more clear that Snowden has been singularly responsible for US intelligence having difficulty. Al Qaeda has been using more and more encryption tools since 2010. It knows the US listens to its communications and, prior to executing Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, the community was well aware that al Qaeda would use couriers for sensitive communications to leaders.
Anonymous US government officials were sharing their views about the chatter that had been intercepted with CNN’s Barbara Starr. Fran Townsend, with her past history as the former Homeland Security advisor for President George w. Bush, was talking with her sources in government, who were providing her details on the intercepted conversation, so CNN could keep up its wall-to-wall coverage of the plot.
It seemed the Obama administration, after the leaks occurred, wanted everyone to know about the plot. Members of Congress and those in the intelligence community certainly went on a campaign of fear to let people know that they intercepted this chatter with surveillance programs Snowden had exposed. The campaign was clearly intended to stifle calls for reforms that would constrain the NSA’s powers to collect and store virtually all Americans’ data.
Implicating journalism allows US intelligence agencies to cite it as an excuse for whatever struggle or troubles they may be having with tracking terrorist groups. Enough stories have been published in the media that officials could probably say, in the event of an attack, well, if Snowden hadn’t leaked US intelligence information and news media hadn’t reported on the al Qaeda plot, we might have been able to stop that plot. Since this kind of thinking has been amplified by media outlets like the Times, it would probably be accepted to some degree.
In conclusion, not only is this story from the Times a shoddy piece of journalism, but it merely functions as propaganda by establishing this idea in the mind of readers, particularly through its headline, that the al Qaeda plot leak undermined US intelligence, even when the last half of the story shows there is no conclusive proof that the leak actually had this effect. The result is government officials are able to further cement this belief in the minds of Americans that leaks cause risks to national security, although that is highly debatable and advanced to deaden the impact of national security journalism.