Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Did The U.S. Blow An Al Qaeda Double Agent Working For Us?

There's been a lot of speculation in the past few days about this, ever since the story broke on Friday night, but now it seems to have gone establishment, as AP has released a full story and everyone is running with it.
The disclosure to reporters of the arrest of an al-Qaida computer expert jeopardized Pakistani efforts to capture more members of Osama bin Laden's terrorist network, government and security officials said Tuesday.

Two senior Pakistani officials said initial reports in "Western media" last week of the capture of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan had enabled other al-Qaida suspects to get away, but declined to say whether U.S. officials were to blame for the leak.

"Let me say that this intelligence leak jeopardized our plan and some al-Qaida suspects ran away," one of the officials said on condition of anonymity.

I've said in other forums that this news is an outright shock to me, especially if the worst explanations for this turn out to be true, and that the counter-intelligence operation was coopted by a combination of the recurring (and stupid) color-coded warnings and the personal political self-interest of the president and his administration. We'll still have to wait and see how this shakes out, but it would be a sad day if we've sunk to this level.

What's clear is that the administration, and specifically Condoleeza Rice, did not seem prepared for this, thus seeming to discount any super-psychological strategies we're ninjaesquely trying to apply to Al Qaeda that would explain our ruining this counterintelligence operation.

Indeed, this was reported earlier today:

The Daily Telegraph reports that US officials have "hit back" against the criticism that they bungled the terror alert and blew the cover of the Al Qaeda mole. They released to Time magazine and to Newsweek more information on the plans for attacks in the US that were discovered on Khan's computers. An unnamed military official told Time that spreading panic in terrorist ranks could also bear fruit.
"People get flushed out and when that happens other people get nervous. As they start to move, they talk and we hear them. It's like hunting birds: you scare 'em up, they run then you shoot them."

Wow, that sounds almost like a Western, with President Bush as the leading man (or a leisurely weekend outing with Justice Scalia). But, first indications, as reported by Juan Cole, are that "CNN is suggesting that the outing of Khan has led to greater caution in al-Qaeda and similar groups about using electronic communications, which may make it more difficult to monitor them."

The foregoing statement would seem to be backed up by the latest AP report:

But the Pakistani officials said that after Khan's arrest, other al-Qaida suspects had abruptly changed their hide-outs and moved to unknown places.

The first official described the initial publication of the news of Khan's arrest as "very disturbing."

"We have checked. No Pakistani official made this intelligence leak," he said.

Without naming any country, he said it was the responsibility of "coalition partners" to examine how a foreign journalist was able to have an access to the "classified information" about Khan's arrest.

So, I'm not so sure about any grand strategy, but the suggestion there is one takes even further, as usual, into either outright condemnation of despicable behavior or undeniable acknowledgement of incompetence.  Neither of these are comfortable conclusions when considering one's leadership, especially in a war.

As for these color-coded terror warnings, can we stop already?  It seems to be getting out-of-hand, as the children's story 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf' would seem to suggest. Even if we allow for the color-coded warnings, there's a right way and a wrong way:

Kevin Rosser, a security expert at the London-based consultancy Control Risks Group, said such a disclosure was "a risk that came with staging public alerts but that authorities were supposed to take special care not to ruin ongoing operations."
"When these public announcements are made, they have to be supported with some evidence, and in addition to creating public anxiety and fatigue, you can risk revealing sources and methods of sensitive operations," he said.

I don't want to go on and on, as I'm sure this story will develop further and we'll get more answers, like who told the NY Times what, when they told them, and if this was the 'background' that Rice was involved in.

Did the Bush Administration confirm all of this information after the NY Times published, or before? All signs seem to point to before, and actually to being the primary source. Only the NY Times can fill us in.

We'll be eagerly awaiting those answers, and, while we do, perhaps this all summed up best by this, and is worthy of reflection as far as evaluating our leadership:

"The whole thing smacks of either incompetence or worse," said Tim Ripley, a security expert who writes for Jane's Defence publications [who was interviewed by Reuters]. "You have to ask: what are they doing compromising a deep mole within Al Qaeda, when it's so difficult to get these guys in there in the first place? It goes against all the rules of counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, running agents and so forth. It's not exactly cloak and dagger undercover work if it's on the front pages every time there's a development, is it?"

Juan Cole also has a fresh late night update for your reading pleasure (or, in this case, pain), describing Jim Lobe's take on this dreadful situation.