Underwear Bomber II: Counter-terror triumph, or disastrous political leak?

Just a couple of weeks ago, the news wires hummed with the story of a second “underwear bombing” attempt by al-Qaeda, designed to blow an airliner out of the sky on the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death from an acute case of Navy SEAL.  We later learned that the prospective Underwear Bomber II was actually a CIA informant.  The plot was real, but the CIA always had the situation under control, because the trigger man was secretly working for the good guys.

We tuned out of this story too soon, but the British press is still talking about it, because it turns out the bomber was actually a British mole, not a CIA operative.  “He was a British national of Saudi Arabian origin, recruited by MI5 in Europe and later run, with Saudi Arabia, by MI6,” reports the UK Telegraph.  “This is a testament to the unimaginable courage of the agent in question, and the ingenuity of British intelligence.”  Some other sources say the agent belonged more to Saudi intelligence than MI6.

The British and Saudis are now hopping mad, because this mole was an extremely valuable asset, and leaks to the media have destroyed the entire operation.  Among other things, it provided intelligence that helped target Fahd al Quso, the head of the USS Cole bombing squad, who was taken out in a drone strike on Yemeni soil earlier this month. 

Who knows what other valuable information might have been developed?  Shashank Josi at the Telegraph takes an educated guess:

If the group learnt of their member’s defection from the media, who knows what countermeasures they took? How did that stymie further arrests or airstrikes? AQAP’s chief bomb-maker, Ibrahim Al-Asiri, might even have escaped as a result.

After all, the agent was reportedly evacuated from Yemen two weeks before the appointed date for his attack. He might have remained quietly operational for that entire period, contacting his colleagues and passing on their location. This leak appears to have frustrated a painstaking and risky operation, of the sort that cannot come around very often.

Second, it’s possible that the story shouldn’t have been leaked at all, at least not in such detail. Agents work with intelligence services because their anonymity – and therefore safety – is guaranteed. AQAP now knows the name and location of their traitor.

Even if he is under secure Saudi Arabian guard, or on a different continent entirely, what about his contacts in Yemen and his family elsewhere? Might there have been other recruits in place, whose contact with the defector now compromises their position?

Such questions will surely prey upon the minds of future recruits.  Reuters reported that the leaks “may deter agents from volunteering for the risky job of infiltrating al-Qaeda’s network,” and related some of the fallout:

“The Saudis are not happy with the leaking of this information,” said Mustafa Alani, a security analyst with good contacts among Gulf Arab governments.

“It is potentially harmful for future operations. And it is the Saudis who have the agents on the ground to get these things done.”

A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron declined to discuss the matter, but said: “Clearly we think that sensitive information should be protected.”

Nigel Inkster, a former assistant chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), said in a Twitter message: “The revelations about the British agent in AQ (al Qaeda) remind us that Beltway leaking is a major security threat.”

Patrick Mercer, a British Conservative Party lawmaker and a specialist in security matters, said: “If this is not a deliberate disclosure done for an operational purpose, then it is a shocking example of a leak posing risks to highly sensitive and important work.”

At this point, the exact source of the leaks remains unknown, but investigations by the U.S. intelligence community and the FBI are under way.  The House Intelligence Committee is performing a “preliminary review” that might be a prelude to a full Congressional investigation.  Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), who chairs House Intelligence, told CBS News the leak constituted “some chest thumping in a political narrative,” and spoke ominously of possible White House involvement:

“It clearly raises some serious questions that we’re going to have to ask,” Rogers said. “We do know that the CIA was trying to stop the story. And we know that there was a scheduled White House – or at least planned press conference on the particular event, and those two desperate positions leads one to believe that … someone was at odds about how much they should or shouldn’t talk about it.”

“No national security operation ever should be used for a headline under any circumstances,” he said.

When Schieffer asked Rogers whether he believed the Obama administration had played straight with him on the operation, Rogers replied, “Unfortunately, no.”

Rogers also said the operation was leaked to the press before anyone in Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, was briefed.  “This is not anything that should be used for a headline,” he added.

Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, was equally angry, telling CNN that “the FBI has to do a full and complete investigation, because this really is criminal in the literal sense of the word to leak out this type of sensitive, classified information on really almost unparalleled penetration of the enemy.” 

The outrage is bipartisan, as Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said, “This leak was serious… it certainly jeopardizes our ability to relate to other countries and for other countries to help us.”  She told Fox News she hopes “criminal charges will go to the Department of Justice.”

Fox also cites an anonymous “U.S. official” who claims “the notion that this was an intentional leak is ludicrous” because “we actually fought to prevent this information from coming out, and then we fought to delay the [Associated Press] publication of it for operational reasons.”  Unfortunately, we don’t know who “we” is.  Was this official from the CIA, Homeland Security, or the White House?