Earlier this week, Attorney General Eric Holder said the story that was leaked to the Associated Press last year was "within the top two or three most serious leaks I've ever seen." But another examination of the story by Carol Leonnig and Julie Tate at The Washington Post suggests any threat of disclosing the information had passed before it was published. Since both the CIA and the White House knew it, why did it kick off such a big investigation?
According to The Post's timeline of the frantic back and forth between the CIA, the White House, and the AP, the AP had their big scoop about a thwarted terror attack ready to go on May 2 of last year. However, the organization sat on the story for five days, at the request of the CIA. The reporters and editors who were working on the story were told that there were serious "national security concerns" at stake. That happens a lot, particularly when the story is about an ongoing operation.
However, on Monday, May 7, those same CIA officials told the AP that those concerns were longer an issue. Presumably, that meant the operation had been completed, the agents involved were safe, and no one was in danger. Yet, the CIA still wanted to them to hold off for one more day, because the government was planning its own announcement, and offered the AP a one-hour long exclusive on the scoop. Then the White House shortened that exclusivity window to five minutes. The AP understandably balked, since the grounds for not publishing had switched from national security concerns to public relations timing, and ran their that afternoon.
On Tuesday morning, the government was openly talking about the mission. Counterterrorism chief John Brennan even went on Good Morning America to talk about the thwarted terrorist attack. (A White House spokesperson says their Tuesday media blitz was merely a response to the AP story that they knew would be coming out.) It was a big success for the CIA and a big coup for the AP.
Now, a year later, Holder says the story "put the American people at risk. That's not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk." Perhaps if the AP had jumped the gun and published the story without running it by the CIA there could have been trouble. But it's standard protocol to reach out to the intelligence agencies before publishing and when they were asked to hold off they did, as most responsible media organizations would do.
NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports that the reason the CIA was upset was that the AP's account had blown the cover of the double agent who was posing as the underwear bomber who they were hoping to reinsert in the field. That may have been true, but it doesn't automatically follow that his or any other American's lives were now in danger. If they were, then why did CIA say their security concerns were no longer an issue? The AP held the story for a week, but that reason went away, so did the danger of publishing, right? That hardly makes it sounds one of the top or three most dangerous leaks of all time.
The same White House spokesperson says, "We shouldn’t pretend that this leak of an unbelievably sensitive dangerous piece of information is OK because nobody died." Perhaps. But if they couldn't convince the Associated Press of that before they published their story, it's going to be hard to convince the American people now.