The agent stopped an al Qaeda plot to blow up an airplane and then handed the bomb over to the CIA, an act so daring, and John Le Carré-like, that people were dying to talk about it. Naturally, the secret got out—at first, in an Associated Press story that exposed the thwarted plot, and later in a Los Angeles Times piece that looked at the double agent.
Altogether, a great story—and a surprising disclosure of covert action. “It is rare, perhaps unprecedented, for the public to know about a double-agent operation in something close to real time,” says former CIA lawyer John Radsan, currently a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. “The leak may have been done as a boast by somebody who’s talking out of school. On the other hand, it’s possible that the officers running the operation leaked details to keep al Qaeda guessing. In that case, the official complaining that we hear about the leaks is a form of theater.”
In other words, the leak was propaganda—for the enemy.
Most likely, though, it was somebody showing off, or blabbing about the operation, which involved Saudi intelligence services and took place in Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, rather than a deliberate leak by a U.S. government official. That kind of disclosure, as Radsan points out, “makes more sense in a Russian intelligence service than one in a democracy.”
It is also not entirely shocking that the leak occurred: “Whenever you’ve got intelligence operations that involve multiple countries in disparate places, the risk of a leak is extremely high,” says Georgetown University’s Bruce Hoffman, author of Inside Terrorism. At this point, though, the source of the leak remains a mystery, and it could be years before Americans find out what really happened with the agent or who told reporters about him and the plot.
Regardless of how it happened, though, the release of the information about the plot and the agent—and the way that administration officials have handled the situation—helps shed light on an elusive and timely subject: national security, secrecy, and the Obama White House. The leak, in its own way, may also help protect Americans from harm—by throwing terrorists off balance.
CIA officers are no doubt horrified by the disclosures, although those who work in Langley refuse to say anything publicly about the subject. Obama White House officials, however, “are probably not terribly upset about it,” says Clifford May, president of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It’s generally good publicity for them.” Indeed, administration officials have been adding details to the account: They have said, for example, that they’d been hearing “chatter” from the Yemen-based terrorist group, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, that made it sound as though they were planning another attack.
American officials also have defended their record, claiming they did not ask the AP reporters to hold off, as the reporters wrote in their piece, because the officials “wanted to schedule an announcement of the foiled plot,” according to the New York Times, but because they wanted to protect the agent. (Erin Madigan White, the AP’s media-relations manager, told me in an email that they had waited a bit and then published the story “after we were assured that security concerns had been satisfied.”)
Over the past several years, Obama administration officials have struggled with their attempts to handle leaks about classified information. In a more general sense, say secrecy experts, there are good leaks and bad leaks: The good ones expose wrongdoing in the government and are “indispensable to the proper functioning of democracy,” says the Federation of American Scientists’ Steven Aftergood, who heads up a project on government secrecy. The bad ones put Americans at risk.
Aftergood and other administration critics say White House officials make little distinction between the two kinds of leaks, and have gone after people who disclose information, regardless of motive or level of threat posed to national security, with a vengeance.
White House officials have been famously chatty about certain kinds of covert operations—namely, those that go well. Shortly after the first anniversary of the Abbottabad raid, officials released 17 documents “out of millions of pages,” says Matthew Levitt, who served as a deputy head of intelligence at the Treasury Department during the Bush administration, from a cache that was found at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. “One could make a case that it was being used politically,” says Levitt.
Reuters is reporting that the intelligence community has begun an “internal review” into possible leaks of classified information about the operation, and that Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee, has expressed concern that the Obama administration did not brief members of Congress about the plot sooner and that the episode “smacks of some chest-thumping in a political narrative.”
Yet it is unlikely that the leak about the al Qaeda plot and the agent “was timed to the political calendar,” says Levitt, or that White House officials had anything to do with it. Still, the story makes them look good, fueling myths surrounding the U.S. and Saudi intelligence services, and for that reason could make terrorists more apprehensive.
“It helps to communicate the message, ‘You don’t know what else we know,’” says Georgetown University’s Bruce Hoffman, “which creates some discord and gets them to spend more time looking over their shoulders than planning attacks.”
In this way, the leak about the thwarted terrorist plot, however it happened, could help to protect Americans. And in any case, it makes one thing is clear: Staying quiet about something like a foiled plot, especially one as dramatic as this one, is tough. As fans of the Pierces know, two can keep a secret—if one of them is dead.