The U.S. dodged another terrorist bullet when a would-be “underwear bomber” turned out to be a double agent. The news became public this week after rumors had circulated in April that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemini-based group that is now the chief terrorist threat against the U.S., had been planning a spectacular attack to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden last May 2.
At first, the White House and other administration sources played down the rumors, saying that there was no credible information that an attack was being planned. Then some briefers modified their answers to suggest that America had not been in imminent danger. By Monday, word had leaked out that an attack was in the works but had been thwarted because the bomber was a double agent.
It’s great that AQAP failed in its attempt to strike the United States or down one of our domestic airlines. What is not so great is that people inside the administration felt it necessary to share what they knew about the operation with the press. When it comes to covert activity, the less the public knows, the better.
It’s hard to know if these leaks were politically motivated — though the timing seems ripe for the president to gain some advantage for being tough on terrorism during an election year. But it may be simply that some people just can’t keep their mouths shut. Unfortunately, in this case, they have clearly put lives at risk and may make it far more difficult to infiltrate AQAP and other groups in the future. Ultimately, this will mean that these groups may someday succeed in killing Americans, as the 9/11 hijackers did.
The press accounts detailing the operation have been stunningly exhaustive. The bomber is reported to have been a Saudi with travel documents that would have allowed him to board a U.S.-bound plane. He is described as having infiltrated AQAP in a low level position, perhaps after being detained in Saudi Arabia on suspicion of terrorist ties and then turned to serve as a Saudi agent.
We also know from press reports that the operation was primarily a Saudi one, run by Saudi security agents in cooperation with the CIA. We know the double agent already had the bomb in his possession and details of the bomb parts have been reported in news accounts.
The components apparently consisted of using a special kind of underwear and non-metallic explosives that the plotters thought would pass undetected though airport detection devices. And, the sources revealed that the bomb had a backup detonator in case the first failed as it did in the foiled Christmas Day bomb attempt over Detroit in 2009.
All of this detail — especially the role played by Saudi Arabia — gives invaluable information on “sources and methods” that are the basis of all good intelligence work. Newspaper reports have also pinpointed when the double agent was taken out of the country by noting that drone attacks took out a Yemini terrorist right afterwards.
Some stories have hinted that the plot had to be interrupted earlier than planned because of news leaks that jeopardized the double agent’s life. But they have also suggested that several other agents remain inside AQAP. Does anyone care that these valuable assets have been jeopardized by the amount of information leaked to the media?
The administration has launched an investigation into how the leaks occurred. But such investigations rarely uncover the culprits. Look what happened in the Bush years when an exhaustive investigation and prosecutions accused White House official “Scooter” Libby of leaking the name of CIA covert operative Valerie Plame to journalists. Though convicted, Libby turned out not to be the source of the leak. Instead, Richard Armitage, who had served in several administrations and was a favorite of the media, was the person who leaked Plame’s name and blew her cover.
In the Plame case, she and her husband, former diplomat Joe Wilson, ended up making money and gaining notoriety, becoming minor celebrities. The current leaks will make no one rich or famous, however. Instead, lives will likely be sacrificed.
There was an old saying in World War II: Loose lips sink ships. The warning could never be more apt than in this case.