Belmont Club

Stirred But Not Shaken

Michael Walsh at the NY Post describes his unease at how the administration exposed an undercover source in order to trumpet its vigilance on terrorism. “Let’s stipulate that the CIA’s discovery a fortnight ago of yet another underwear-bomber plot, this one originating with al Qaeda in Yemen and aimed at an American airliner, was a splendid feat of intel tradecraft … But here’s a rude question: Why do we even know about this?”

One of the unsung stories in the War on Terror is the active cooperation of Arab and other Muslim officers working in-country: Saudi intelligence officers, Iraqi cops and local Afghani chiefs …

Their identities — their very existences — are generally kept secret, not only for their own protection, but for the continuing effectiveness of counterterrorism ops. You generally don’t let the bad guys know you’ve penetrated their inner sanctums. Moles stay underground for a reason.

Yet here was John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, showing up on national TV to take a very public victory lap. “I think people getting on a plane today should feel confident that their intelligence services are working day in and day out to stop these types of IEDs from getting anywhere near a plane,” he said …

So why blab? Why endanger an asset like the brave Saudi double agent who penetrated al Qaeda, helped track the other plotters and came away with the bomb itself?

No matter how closely guarded his identity is, he is very likely a dead man walking.

According to the Guardian, British intelligence is asking themselves the same thing. Was this press conference really necessary? The reason for their doubts is that the man characterized by Walsh as “a dead man walking” is British.

Michael Scheuer, former head of the Bin Laden team is quoted as saying “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.” Well that depends on who you are talking about. It’s probably tragic for the “dead man walking”. It usually is. But it reaffirms the claim that President Obama is standing watch: vigilant, implacable and determined.

Scheuer “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’.”

The name of the British passport-holder has not yet been released but may come out through al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. He is reported to have spent time at at language school in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, and been recruited by al-Qaida as a suicide bomber.

Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai told CNN that the bomber had been recruited by the Saudis to penetrate al-Qaida about a year ago, in part because the group would be attracted by the fact that his UK passport meant he could travel to the US without a visa.

“Apparently he was able to convince al-Qaida that he is genuinely ready to carry out the mission,” said Alani, who CNN said had been briefed by Saudi counter-terrorism officials. Alani said his understanding was that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap) intended the would-be suicide bomber to fly through a Gulf country to connect to a US-bound flight.

There are two possible counter-arguments to these criticisms. One is to assert that the agent was already blown. Hence, nothing was lost by exposing him. The second is what might be termed the “higher purposes” justification. There may have been political or operational considerations which only the President is equipped to judge which required the exposure, or sacrifice of this man. The most obvious possibility is that the British source is not the true deep penetration agent and he is being being blown to draw attention away from the real one. Of course such a decision would be reached only after much soul-searching, and not a little angst as is the case as President Obama said, whenever “I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf”.

It’s a pity that none of these justifications were available to I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, who was “indicted by a federal grand jury concerning the investigation of the leak of the covert identity of Central Intelligence Agency officer Valerie Plame Wilson. Plame’s relationship with the CIA was formerly classified information. Libby was indicted on five counts relating to the Plame affair: Two counts of perjury, two counts of making false statements to federal investigators, and one count of obstruction of justice. Libby resigned all three government positions immediately after the indictment was announced.”

Ironically, Libby may have had nothing to do with Plame’s exposure. “On August 28, 2006, Christopher Hitchens asserted that Richard Armitage was the primary source of the Valerie Plame leak and that Fitzgerald knew this at the beginning of his investigation. This was supported a month later by Armitage himself, who stated that Fitzgerald had instructed him not to go public with this information.”

However that may be, the unnamed informant’s life has changed forever. Gregory Johnson, who writes on Yemeni issues says there is no point keeping the British passport holder’s name secret since the terrorists know it. Nothing stops them from announcing it to the world.

“Undoubtedly, Aqap [the terror group] recorded a marytrdom video of the undercover agent before giving him the bomb,” Johnsen wrote. “The US and Saudis won’t divulge his identity for obvious reasons, but will Aqap?

Well maybe that martyrdom video will still come in handy. But should the source make the ultimate sacrifice, he should take comfort in the knowledge that it was all for the best of causes.


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