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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Leak None Dared Call Treason

by "Jpol"

In the heat of silly season attacks from the right against The New York Times for its "exposure" of Bush administration surveillance of international banking transactions, the public and mainstream media have forgotten about another highly publicized leak just two years ago. That story, which also ran in the Times, dealt a serious blow to the fight against terror. It exposed a mole that had penetrated Al Qaeda, and it crippled a sting operation, allowing numerous subjects of investigation to escape. Some of those subjects may have participated in a major terrorist attack a year later. Unlike the bank records "revelations" of 2006, which were not really secret at all, the leak of 2004 jeopardized national security, and almost certainly cost lives. Yet the right wing Republican spin machine -- now calling for prosecutions under the Espionage Act, death in the gas chamber for Times' Managing Editor Bill Keller, and investigations of the media and of leakers in the name of "national security" -- were strangely silent in 2004. That leak, which occurred in the middle of a Presidential campaign, was clearly designed to advance a purely political agenda, and the leakers were unidentified sources within the George W. Bush administration. "Read More" click link below


The stage was set for this other leak in the early summer of 2004. The presidential campaign was heating up. The Democratic National Convention was just around the corner. And George W. Bush was sinking in the polls. His job approval ratings, which had been in the 80's and 90's just two years earlier in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, had fallen below 50% for the first time. The American public was even beginning to lose faith in the ability of the Bush Administration to protect it from terrorists. Most polls now showed more than 40% of Americans disapproved of Bush's handling of the war on terror. Significantly, a June 2004 ABC News/Washington Post poll even had John Kerry inching ahead of George W. Bush on the question of which one was better able to deal with terrorist threats, an issue where Bush had once held a formidable advantage.

The administration needed a break, and in June 0f 2004 it got one, or so it evidently thought. On June 12, 2004 Abu Mus'ab al Baluchi was arrested in Karachi, Pakistan. Baluchi was a nephew of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, and he was said to be a terrorist "facilitator" who helped others move and plan their attacks. News of his capture was a closely kept secret.

Information provided by Baluchi led Pakistani investigators to Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani whom they captured on July 25, 2004 on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. Ghailani, an occupant of the FBI's "Most Wanted" list had a $5 million price on his head. He was suspected of involvement in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which 224 people had lost their lives.

Though Ghalani was apprehended July 25th, his capture was not made public until four days later on July 29th, when it was revealed amid much fanfare by Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat, in what The Washington Post described as "an unusual late-night announcement on Pakistan's Geo television network." The Post also noted that similar high-profile arrests of terrorist suspects were usually reported to the media "almost immediately." "What difference will it make if we do not rush to make a hasty unconfirmed claim?" the Post quoted Hayat as saying, adding that Hayat "said he saw no connection between the late announcement of Ghailani's arrest and the Democratic National Convention in the United States, where Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts was about to accept his party's nomination for president." [Emphasis added]

Virtually no one in the mainstream media mentioned an article that had appeared in The New Republic ten days before on July 19th entitled "July Surprise?" by John B. Judis, Spencer Ackerman and Massoud Ansari, excerpted below:

...This spring, the administration significantly increased its pressure on Pakistan... to do more in the war on terrorism...

This public pressure would be appropriate, even laudable, had it not been accompanied by an unseemly private insistence that the Pakistanis deliver... high-value targets (HVTs) before Americans go to the polls in November... Introducing target dates for Al Qaeda captures is a new twist in U.S.-Pakistani counterterrorism relations--according to a recently departed intelligence official... official who works under [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)] director, Lieutenant General Ehsan ul-Haq, informed tnr that the Pakistanis "have been told at every level that apprehension or killing of HVTs before [the] election is [an] absolute must." What's more, this source claims that Bush administration officials have told their Pakistani counterparts they have a date in mind for announcing this achievement: "The last ten days of July deadline has been given repeatedly by visitors to Islamabad and during... meetings in Washington." ...according to this ISI official, a White House aide told ul-Haq last spring that "it would be best if the arrest or killing of [any] HVT were announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July"--the first three days of the Democratic National Convention in Boston.[Emphasis added]

The announced arrest of Ghailani just hours before John Kerry's scheduled acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination in Boston diverted public attention and considerable news coverage away from John Kerry and his acceptance speech. Two days later that was followed by the declaration of a new terror alert by then Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. "We have no specific information that says an attack is imminent," Ridge declared in a 2pm press conference on Sunday, August 2nd. He announced that Al Qaeda operatives were preparing to bomb specific buildings in the financial districts of New York City, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. The timing of the Ridge press conference and the heightened alerts would come under scrutiny only two days later when it was learned that the surveillance upon which the alerts was based had actually taken place three to four years earlier, prompting questions as to just why the U.S. government had suddenly perceived an imminent threat immediately following the official start of the presidential election campaign.


The day after Ridge's "revelations" regarding the financial districts "plot," The New York Times went to press with an Exclusive story: "THREATS AND RESPONSES: INTELLIGENCE; Captured Qaeda Figure Led Way To Information Behind Warning," excerpted below:

The unannounced capture of a figure from Al Qaeda in Pakistan several weeks ago led the Central Intelligence Agency to the rich lode of information that prompted the terror alert on Sunday, according to senior American officials.

The figure, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, was described by a Pakistani intelligence official as a 25-year-old computer engineer, arrested July 13, who had used and helped to operate a secret Qaeda communications system where information was transferred via coded messages.

A senior United States official would not confirm or deny that Mr. Khan had been the Qaeda figure whose capture led to the information. But the official said ''documentary evidence'' found after the capture had demonstrated in extraordinary detail that Qaeda members had for years conducted sophisticated and extensive reconnaissance of the financial institutions cited in the warnings on Sunday.

One senior American intelligence official said the information was more detailed and precise than any he had seen during his 24-year career in intelligence work. A second senior American official said it had provided a new window into the methods, content and distribution of Qaeda communications...

In fact, Khan was not the source of the financial district plot "intelligence" which had actually been gathered years earlier, nor was there any intelligence to indicate that an attack on New York area and Washington, D.C. financial centers was imminent. On this count the Times article contained some serious mis-information:

"The American officials said the new evidence had been obtained only after the capture of the Qaeda figure. Among other things, they said, it demonstrated that Qaeda plotters had begun casing the buildings in New York, Newark and Washington even before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."

While the Times article seemed to suggest that the original leak about Khan had come from a "Pakistani Intelligence official," that also was not the case. The mainstream media did some reporting on the back end of this story, but a major debt of gratitude is owed to Middle East authority Juan Cole, who closely monitored and chronicled events on his respected and widely read web site, Informed Comment as they unfolded.

Within a few days a different version of events began to emerge, like this one in The Washington Post on August 4th:

"Bush administration officials said the terror alert for financial sectors in Washington, New York and Newark was based in part on the contents of a laptop computer, disks and other materials seized during an arrest of an al Qaeda fugitive in Pakistan in late July showing that al Qaeda operatives had conducted detailed surveillance of the five buildings. U.S. officials did not make clear until Tuesday that the surveillance was conducted three to four years ago and that authorities were not sure whether it had continued [Emphasis added]."

It soon became abundantly clear that the outing of Khan in the New York Times had seriously damaged the national security of the United States, Great Britain, and Pakistan, among others. Juan Cole's report dated August 7, 2004:

Did the Bush Administration Burn a Key al-Qaeda Double Agent?

Simon Cameron-Moore and Peter Graff of Reuters reveal the explosive information that the Bush administration blew the cover Monday of double agent Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan. On Sunday August 1, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced a new alert against an al-Qaeda plot concerning financial institutions in New York and Washington, DC.

...Reuters alleges, "The New York Times published a story on Monday saying U.S. officials had disclosed that a man arrested secretly in Pakistan was the source of the bulk of information leading to the security alerts... The newspaper... did not say how it had learned his name. U.S. officials subsequently confirmed the name to other news organizations on Monday morning. None of the reports mentioned that Khan was working under cover at the time, helping to catch al Qaeda suspects."

...Reuters implies that once the Americans blew Khan's cover, the Pakistani ISI were willing to give [New York Times reporter David] Rohde more details in Karachi.

...Anyway, Khan had been secretly apprehended by Pakistani military intelligence in mid-July, and had been turned into a double agent. He was actively helping investigators penetrate further into al-Qaeda cells and activities via computer, and was still cooperating when the "senior Bush administration" figure told [New York Times reporter Douglas] Jehl about him.

Pakistani military intelligence... told Reuters,'"He sent encoded e-mails and received encoded replies. He's a great hacker and even the U.S. agents said he was a computer whiz... He was cooperating with interrogators on Sunday and Monday and sent e-mails on both days..."'

In other words, the Bush administration just blew the cover of one of the most important assets inside al-Qaeda that the US has ever had.

The announcement of Khan's name forced the British to arrest 12 members of an al-Qaeda cell prematurely, before they had finished gathering the necessary evidence against them via Khan. Apparently they feared that the cell members would scatter as soon as they saw that Khan had been compromised. (They would have known he was a double agent, since they got emails from him Sunday and Monday!) One of the twelve has already had to be released for lack of evidence, a further fall-out of the Bush SNAFU. It would be interesting to know if other cell members managed to flee.

Why in the world would Bush administration officials out a double agent working for Pakistan and the US against al-Qaeda? In a way, the motivation does not matter. If the Reuters story is true, this slip is a major screw-up that casts the gravest doubts on the competency of the administration to fight a war on terror. Either the motive was political calculation, or it was sheer stupidity...

On August 9th Juan Cole observed:

...Then on [August 6th], after Khan's name was revealed, government sources told CNN that counterterrorism officials had seen a drop in intercepted communications among suspected terrorists."

Read between the lines, and 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.

And the Washington Post reported on August 13th:

According to a Post report attributed to a senior U.S. official, "Khan became part of a sting operation organized by the CIA after he was captured last month [July 13] and agreed to send coded e-mail messages to al Qaeda contacts around the world." That sting operation was blown instantly by the leak of Khan's name.

Meanwhile, Condoleeza Rice had acknowledged to CNN's Wolf Blitzer on August 8, 2004 that the source of the Khan leak was the Bush administration, not Pakistani intelligence officials:

BLITZER: He was disclosed in Washington on background.

RICE: On background. And the problem is that when you're trying to strike a balance between giving enough information to the public so that they know that you're dealing with a specific, credible, different kind of threat than you've dealt with in the past, you're always weighing that against kind of operational considerations. We've tried to strike a balance. We think for the most part, we've struck a balance, but it's indeed a very difficult balance to strike.

Apparently neither Pakistani nor British officials were comforted by the "balance" Condoleeza Rice found so comforting. Juan Cole, August 8, 2004:

It turns out that both the United Kingdom and Pakistan are extremely angry with Bush for going public with the details gleaned from the computers of Khan and Ghailani.

In an article for the Observer, British Home Secretary David Blunkett lashed out at the Bush White House over last Sunday's announcement by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge of an old al-Qaeda plot against financial institutions in New York and Washington. Blunkett writes, is important to be able to distinguish if there is a meaningful contribution that helps to secure us from terrorism. And to understand if there isn't. And there are very good reasons why we shouldn't reveal certain information to the public...

Blunkett's measured tones barely disguise his fury at the Bush administration for having gone public with details that have endangered an ongoing British investigation and forced the premature arrest of twelve suspects, against whom it is not clear a case can be made at this point...

Pakistan's Interior Minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, was also annoyed, according to Dawn:
Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat, in an interview on Friday, drew a veil over Khan's contribution to the breakthroughs against Al Qaeda. "This is a very sensitive subject. We must be very careful, we must exercise extreme caution in coming out with such names and such information," the minister said.

On August 9th Juan Cole wrote about and commented upon further fallout from the outing of Khan:

Neville Dean of PA News reports that... "Reports last week also claimed that five al Qaida militants were on the run in the UK after escaping capture in last Tuesday's raids." If this is true, it is likely that the 5 went underground on hearing that Khan was in custody. That is, the loose lips of the Bush administration enabled them to flee arrest...

...One [of those being held], Abu Eisa al-Hindi, is a high al-Qaeda official also wanted by the US. Because Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan's identity was prematurely released, however, the British may not have enough evidence to extradite him. [note: to date al-Hindi apparently remains in British custody despite having been indicted in the United States -- Jpol] noted Monday morning:
"The effort by U.S. officials to justify raising the terror alert level last week may have shut down an important source of information that has already led to a series of al Qaeda arrests, Pakistani intelligence sources have said.

Until U.S. officials leaked the arrest of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan to reporters, Pakistan had been using him in a sting operation to track down al Qaeda operatives around the world, the sources said...

The Boston Globe reported the following day:

...several senior intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed dismay at the level of information that has been revealed to the media -- particularly the role that Khan's arrest has played.

''Most of the people I talk to are most shocked by some of the recent details being revealed about Al Qaeda," said one senior CIA analyst who works on terrorism issues.

On August 7, 2004 John Loftus, a former Justice Department prosecutor and a terrorism expert, told FOX News that "By exposing the only deep mole we've ever had within al-Qaeda, it ruined the chance to capture dozens if not hundreds more."

On September 16, 2004, more than seven weeks after Kahn's identity was leaked to The New York Times, then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, in London for consultation with British officials, publicly acknowledged that the U.S. had been responsible for the leak and apologized for it. He told reporters that the leaking of the intelligence about alleged terrorist suspects in London was "regrettable."


The story does not end here. Remember those alleged plans to attack financial centers in New York, Newark and Washington? It turns out that wasn't true either. Michael Isakoff and Mark Hosenball reported in on the real targets in Newsweek two weeks after the November 2004 election:

The latest analysis of evidence that led to last summer's Code Orange alert suggests that Al Qaeda operatives were plotting a "big bomb" attack against a major landmark in Britain-but had no active plans for strikes in the United States, U.S. intelligence sources tell NEWSWEEK.

The reassessment of Al Qaeda plans is the latest indication that much of the Bush administration's repeatedly voiced concerns about a pre-election attack inside the United States was based in part on an early misreading of crucial intelligence seized months ago in Pakistan.

The new view is that there was indeed an active Al Qaeda plot underway earlier this year-one that involved coded communications between high-level operatives in Pakistan and a British cell headed by a longtime associate of September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

The plot was aimed at setting off a large bomb at a prestigious economic or political target inside the United Kingdom-in effect to make a political statement against the British government...

Some U.S. law-enforcement officers based in London, NEWSWEEK has learned, have become extremely concerned about evidence regarding possible active Al Qaeda plots to attack targets in Britain. According to a U.S. government official, fears of terror attacks have prompted FBI agents based in the U.S. Embassy in London to avoid traveling on London's popular underground railway (or tube) system...[Emphasis added]

...The indications that plotters linked to a big election-season terror alert actually were actively planning to attack Britain rather than the United States is at least the second revelation which seems to partly undermine administration assertions that the U.S. homeland faced a heightened risk of attack during the presidential campaign.

Shortly before the election, administration officials quietly acknowledged that at least one informant who last winter had provided lurid intelligence about a possible pre-election attack in the U.S. had apparently fabricated his allegations. Yet given the importance that waging the war on terror had assumed during the presidential campaign, administration officials apparently were reluctant to announce a lowering of the Orange-alert threat until after the election...


Fast forward to July 7, 2005 when a series of suicide terrorist attacks upon the London public transportation system left 52 dead and hundreds injured. Were these the attacks being planned in 2004 when the U.S. government outed Khan? Did members of a terrorist cell who escaped following Khan's exposure go on to carry out their plans after all, a year later? ABC News reported on July 17, 2005:

...Officials tell ABC News the London bombers have been connected to an al Qaeda plot planned two years ago in the Pakistani city of Lahore.

The laptop computer of Naeem Noor Khan, a captured al Qaeda leader, contained plans for a coordinated series of attacks on the London subway system...

Security officials tell ABC News they have discovered links between the eldest of the London bombers, Mohammed Sadique Khan, 30, and the original group in Luton...

One of Khan's friends informed the BBC today that Khan had undergone training for explosives at terror camps in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. This piece of information only strengthened the London-Pakistani connection.

So there you have it. A politically inspired election-year leak from the Bush administration to The New York Times outed an Al Qaeda mole and disrupted an ongoing sting operation that had the potential of uncovering and leading to the capture of untold numbers of Al Qaeda terrorists. Instead many remained unidentified while others escaped. A year later scores died in London.

To those who are screaming for the head of Bill Keller for "exposing" a bank-records program that the Bush administration had been openly boasting about for years, I ask: Where was your outrage back in 2004 when a Bush administration leak to the very same New York Times placed all of us in jeopardy?

I've paid my rent through the years in ad sales management, but I've been extensively published in publications that include Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, New Times Magazine, The Washington Star, The New York Times Op-Ed page, The Realist, and in several book anthologies. My primary area of expertise is the JFK assassination. I am a front-page blogger at Booman Tribune and frequently cross-post at Daily Kos.
The Leak None Dared Call Treason


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