Following the dramatic revelations last week about a foiled “underwear bomb plot”, and the startling news that the “bomber” was in fact an undercover British agent, US intelligence agents together with MI6 and MI5 are furious that the news was leaked at all, and are pointing fingers of blame at the Obama White House.
The Guardian reports:
Detailed leaks of operational information about the foiled underwear bomb plot are causing growing anger in the US intelligence community, with former agents blaming the Obama administration for undermining national security and compromising the British services, MI6 and MI5.
Mike Scheur, the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit, said the leaking about the nuts and bolts of British involvement was despicable and would make a repeat of the operation difficult. “MI6 should be as angry as hell. This is something that the prime minister should raise with the president, if he has the balls. This is really tragic,” Scheur said.He added: “Any information disclosed is too much information. This does seem to be a tawdry political thing.”
He noted that the leak came on the heels of a series of disclosures over the last 10 days, beginning with a report that the CIA wanted to expand its drone attacks in Yemen, Barack Obama making a surprise trip to Afghanistan around the time of the Bin Laden anniversary and “then this inexplicable leak”.
Robert Grenier, former head of the CIA counter-terrorism centre, said: “As for British Intelligence, I suppose, but do not know, that they must be very unhappy. They are often exasperated, quite reasonably, with their American friends, who are far more leak-prone than they.
“In their place, I would think two and three times before sharing with the Americans, and then only do it if I had to. The problem with that dynamic is that you don’t know what you don’t know, and what opportunities you might be missing when you decide not to share. The Americans are doing a very good job of undermining trust, and the problem starts at the top.”
Shashank Joshi, writing in the Daily Telegraph, confirms the anger of the intelligence communities at the American-sourced leaks, but raises the possibility that the leak emanated from the CIA:
This week began with news of a remarkable intelligence coup. It has ended in ignominy, and a reminder that the pathological leakiness of the American bureaucracy has consequences for counterterrorism.
According to the Associated Press (AP), the CIA foiled an audacious plot by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to attack an aircraft using an upgraded version of the underwear bomb that failed three years ago. The AP had, apparently, shown great responsibility in delaying publication for days at the request of the White House.
Then, the story grew both muddier and more remarkable still. The would-be bomber was in fact a mole. He was a British national of Saudi Arabian origin, recruited by MI5 in Europe and later run, with Saudi Arabia, by MI6. This is a testament to the unimaginable courage of the agent in question, and the ingenuity of British intelligence.
But the emergence of this story, with a blow-by-blow account of operational detail, is the result of reckless, impetuous leaking that could cost lives and compromise operations in the future.
For a start, the story appears to have trickled out far too soon.
One US official has noted that “this operation could have gone on for some time … when it was cut off by a leak”. Even once the agent turned up in Saudi Arabia, it was clear that his intelligence was helping to target a spate of crucial drone strikes within Yemen – including one that killed AQAP’s head of external operations, a man responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000.
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.
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.
Third, and finally, it’s one thing to leak your own organisation’s role – but it’s another thing entirely to implicate your foreign partners, and thereby jeopardise their future operations too.
The Telegraphreported earlier this year that the CIA was angered by the British courts’ disclosure of secret information, and had reacted by thinning the flow of information. If that is correct, it is doubly shameful that the role of both Saudi Arabia and Britain should have been plastered over the newspapers.
The CIA, and its overseers in the other branches of government, are known to leak like sieves. After all, just look at the operational detail that emerged less than a day after the raid for Osama bin Laden. But their foreign partners are entitled to a shade more discretion.
The fear for the safety of the British double agent is very real and very serious. Security chiefs fear the agent’s identity will be exposed within a couple of weeks:
MI5 fear that militant Islamists will attempt to exact revenge on the British spy, who penetrated al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP), by publishing his photograph on the internet – a move designed to incite extremists to hunt him down.
Sources have described the British spy as “gold dust”, adding that he was one of just a handful of agents in the last ten years to have successfully penetrated one of the groups aligned to al-Qaeda’s concept of global Jihad.
AQAP now represents the “greatest operational threat” to Britain and America, according to senior Whitehall sources.
The group is known for its use of modern communication techniques including the publication of an English-language magazine, Inspire, which is distributed to supporters over the internet.
A former security official told The Sunday Telegraph that although the mission to penetrate AQAP was a success, the agent was now “burned” and would never be able to take part in covert operations again.
In all likelihood, the official said, the agent will have to be relocated outside of the Middle East and provided with a new identity.
It can also be revealed that al-Qaeda believed that the British double agent came from a family with radical Islamic ties and was recommended by a close relative who was trusted by leaders AQAP, the network’s Yemeni wing, according to US intelligence.
“He apparently came from what AQAP regarded as a good family, meaning that they believed he was a radical Islamist in his DNA, and was brought in to the group by a close male relative,” said Dan Goure, a Pentagon consultant and vice-president of the Lexington Institute, a national security think-tank.
The whole story reads like something out of James Bond, only without a conclusively happy ending (and minus the beautiful girl of course). Let’s hope both sides know how to plug their leaks and keep their secrets to themselves in future.