Someone in the government told the press confidential details of a terror operation centered on Yemen. In 2012, that meant broad outcry, with members of Congress calling for investigations and criminal charges. In 2013: crickets.
The Guardian's Spencer Ackerman raised that point indirectly in a tweet this morning.
Not even going to bother asking why no one's mad about official leaks re "ingenious" al-Qaida liquid explosive & intercepting Zawahiri calls— Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman) August 6, 2013
We covered the liquid explosive revelation on Monday. But it's the al Zawahiri interception that's more telling.
An official who’d been briefed on the matter in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, told McClatchy that the embassy closings and travel advisory were the result of an intercepted communication between Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri in which Zawahiri gave “clear orders” to al-Wuhaysi, who was recently named al Qaida’s general manager, to carry out an attack.
Other media outlets, including The New York Times withheld the identity of the participants at the request of the government.
In May of 2012, the Associated Press was similarly responsive to the government's request when it learned about a bombing plot thwarted by the CIA.
The AP learned about the thwarted plot last week but agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP decided to disclose the plot Monday despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement Tuesday.
U.S. officials, who were briefed on the operation, insisted on anonymity to discuss the case, which the U.S. has never officially acknowledged.
Less than a year later, the AP learned that the leak that prompted that story resulted in a Justice Department subpoena of the organization's phone records, in an attempt to identify the story's source — one of those officials in the last sentence above.
Justice's reaction unquestionably stemmed in part from the response on Capitol Hill. Less than a week after the AP ran its story, members of Congress were calling for criminal investigations of the leak, as reported by Bloomberg.
“The FBI has to do a full and complete investigation, because this really is criminal in the literal sense of the word to leak out this type of sensitive, classified information on really almost unparalleled penetration of the enemy,” Representative Peter King, a New York Republican who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in an interview today on CNN’s “State of the Union” television program.
King wasn't alone in that call. Bloomberg also quotes similar sentiment from Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the latter of whom stated that "it gives a tip off [to al Qaeda] to be more careful about who they use as their couriers, as their bombers.”
In the aftermath of the leak detailing how the United States learned about the current threat, the response has been very different. Neither Rogers or Feinstein has made public comment about the revelations that it involved al Zawahiri. King, however, all but confirmed that detail to CNN.
King said that the information had been developing for a while, but remained tight-lipped about any possible sources and other details, mostly reiterating known information.
“[Al Qaeda] would be, I would say, the main driving force here, that’s pretty much what’s been confirmed by the government, that it is coming out of Yemen and it is Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula…where most of these threats do come from.”
What might account for the differing response? A few things.
- The nature of the threats. That the government was calling for embassy closures couldn't be kept secret. In the light of the recent attention paid to NSA surveillance, it was natural that reporters should try and determine how and why the action was taken. The 2012 event, however, was not public.
- The politics of the moment. In 2012, Washington was preparing for the presidential election. Charges that the Obama administration selectively leaked information date back to well before the campaign. Raising the issue in the months leading up to it served a political purpose; Feinstein's concurrence allowed the Democrats to reinforce their commitment to cracking down.
For an example of this last point, take the critique of one Congressman, responding to the Benghazi attack only weeks before the election as reported by Fox News.
Rogers alleges that selective leaks over the weekend, including a report in the Washington Post, are part of an orchestrated effort by the administration to legitimize early statements by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and others about the genesis of the attack.
Yes, that's the same Mike Rogers who hasn't had public comment on the al Zawahiri leak.
Which is the most obvious reason for the differing response. The current leak serves the needs of those defending the NSA's surveillance, including Rogers, which is what Ackerman was getting at. Feinstein isn't likely to complain about a leak that bolsters her side in the uphill fight in which she's engaged. NSA advocates were quick to champion the revelations as a point in their favor. It's unlikely, then, that the administration, which holds that view, was unaware or unhappy with the information getting out.
This could change. It took a week in 2012 before there were calls for an investigation. If by this point next week King, Rogers, and Feinstein aren't calling for an investigation into who revealed that detail to McClatchy (and the other news outlets), any cynicism you may have felt about the government's even-handedness on intelligence revelations might be proved to be warranted.
Photo: A guard searches a car near the embassy in Yemen. (AP)