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 fincial institutions in New York and Washington, DC.
Pressed for details by the New York Times, some Bush administration official revealed that the information came from a recently arrested man in Pakistan named “Khan.” The New York Times published his name on Monday.
“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 named him as Khan, although it 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.”
I don’t have access to a hard copy of last Monday’s NYT anymore, and so cannot check. The article as it appears in Lexis Nexis, from the “late edition” on Monday, already has Khan’s full name.
Douglas Jehl and David Rohde wrote in the article published Monday, Aug. 2, “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.” Reuters seems to say that the first, early morning edition of the article just identified the figure as “Khan.”
Reuters implies that once the Americans blew Khan’s cover, the Pakistani ISI were willing to give Rohde more details in Karachi.
This part of the Reuters chronology seems not quite right to me, unless the early-edition Jehl/Rohde story on Monday only gave “Khan” and not the full name.
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 Jehl about him.
Pakistani military intelligence (Inter-Services 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. They don’t deserve to be in power either way.
Reuters quotes British security expert Kevin Rosser speculating what might have been the political calculation if that was the motivation. He
‘ said such a disclosure was a risk that came with staging public alerts, but that authorities were meant to take special care not to ruin ongoing operations. “When these public announcements are made they have to be supported with some evidence, and in addition to creating public anxiety and fatigue you can risk revealing sources and methods of sensitive operations,” he said. ‘
So one scenario goes like this. Bush gets the reports that Eisa al-Hindi had been casing the financial institutions, and there was an update as recently as January 2004 in the al-Qaeda file. So this could be a live operation. If Bush doesn’t announce it, and al-Qaeda did strike the institutions, then the fact that he knew of the plot beforehand would sink him if it came out (and it would) before the election. So he has to announce the plot. But if he announces it, people are going to suspect that he is wagging the dog and trying to shore up his popularity by playing the terrorism card. So he has to be able to give a credible account of how he got the information. So when the press is skeptical and critical, he decides to give up Khan so as to strengthen his case. In this scenario, he or someone in his immediate circle decides that a mere double agent inside al-Qaeda can be sacrificed if it helps Bush get reelected in the short term.
On the other hand, sheer stupidity cannot be underestimated as an explanatory device in Washington politics.