Once upon a time, CIA operations were secret.
But as the latest bomb plot in Yemen shows, little stays hidden for long these days.
In the post-Sept. 11 world, even the most sensitive intelligence operations quickly become daily fodder as the 24-hour news cycle, the Internet and media-friendly politicians give the story momentum. And it’s often senior government officials and the intelligence community that spreads the juiciest details.
The Obama administration has said very little on the record about the scheme in Yemen to bomb a U.S.-bound airliner, using a hard-to-detect explosive device hidden in a would-be bomber’s underwear.
The Associated Press broke the story on Monday, saying it had delayed publication for days at the request of the administration. Since then, the news media have been adding detail after detail to the story, based largely on anonymous leaks from U.S. and foreign officials.
The administration’s statements have stuck mainly to assurances that U.S. intelligence knew about the plot as it developed and that Americans were never at risk.
John Brennan, the president’s counterterrorism adviser, told reporters, “We had the device in our control, and we were confident that it was not going to pose a threat to the American public.”
But under the cloak of anonymity, government officials have had a lot more to say. They’ve indicated the would-be suicide bomber was working for Saudi intelligence, and not only delivered the intact bomb to the CIA, but provided information that helped locate and kill a key al-Qaida leader in Yemen on Sunday.
Why are U.S. officials so willing to talk about top secret operations?
“Vanity,” says former CIA officer Robert Baer, who thinks that some officials are hurting the agency by showing off to the press.
“I know more about the CIA from talking to journalists who cover it than I ever did when I was on the inside,” says Baer.
Revelations about how the latest plot was foiled will hurt America’s relations with Saudi intelligence, Baer contends. “Saudis are extremely sensitive about talking about the CIA. It’s a bad name in the Middle East, like AIDS.”
However, in some previous terror cases, the Saudis have been eager to highlight their cooperation in helping prevent attacks on the U.S.
Still, former CIA agent Michael Scheuer predicted the recent reports will dampen Saudi Arabia’s willingness to cooperate with U.S. intelligence in the future.
“This certainly was an operation that was dependent on the Saudis to find the right person to put into the tent,” he says. “How do they find another person [for future undercover operations] now that this operation has been revealed?”
But Scheuer also believes that leaks about the mission have been orchestrated from the very top of the Obama administration, for political gain.
Scheuer says he thinks leaking about national security operations has been “an accelerating process,” and he blames both the Clinton and Bush administrations as well as Obama.
“They had very little concern about compromising operational systems and methods,” he says. “It’s another example of deeply politicized our security policy has become.”
Baer dismisses the idea that the leaking is controlled by the administration, and he says it’s hurting the credibility of the CIA by suggesting that the agency had a leading role in operation, when its contribution was based on liaison with the Saudis.
Both Baer and Scheuer have written extensively about their own time in the CIA and are frequent commentators on television.
For members of Congress charged with intelligence oversight, the issue of how much to say is even more complicated.
Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California, confirmed some details of the plot when the story first became public, but she has also said the leak should not have occurred.
Representative Peter King, a Republican from New York and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN Tuesday “there’s really great concern that this got out. My understanding is a major investigation is going to be launched because of this.”
Gregory Johnsen, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University, told NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston that he also viewed all the leaks with concern.
But he noted that it could sow suspicion within the group that organized the plot, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
“The only silver lining that we can take away is the hope that this will somehow lead to a mole hunt within AQAP that will possibly tear the organization apart,” he says.