Leak of al-Qaeda plot had a negative impact on US counterterrorism efforts
Remember last August when it was leaked that the US was facing a serious and imminent terrorist threat? We shut down 19 embassies for a week in response.
It turns out that leaking that informtaion, along with the names of senior al-Qaeda officials who were discussing the plot, badly damaged our ability to spy on the terrorists.
Since news reports in early August revealed that the United States intercepted messages between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, discussing an imminent terrorist attack, analysts have detected a sharp drop in the terrorists' use of a major communications channel that the authorities were monitoring. Since August, senior American officials have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaeda's leaders and operatives.
"The switches weren't turned off, but there has been a real decrease in quality" of communications, said one United States official, who like others quoted spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence programs.
The drop in message traffic after the communication intercepts contrasts with what analysts describe as a far more muted impact on counterterrorism efforts from the disclosures by Mr. Snowden of the broad capabilities of N.S.A. surveillance programs. Instead of terrorists moving away from electronic communications after those disclosures, analysts have detected terrorists mainly talking about the information that Mr. Snowden has disclosed.
Senior American officials say that Mr. Snowden's disclosures have had a broader impact on national security in general, including counterterrorism efforts. This includes fears that Russia and China now have more technical details about the N.S.A. surveillance programs. Diplomatic ties have also been damaged, and among the results was the decision by Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, to postpone a state visit to the United States in protest over revelations that the agency spied on her, her top aides and Brazil's largest company, the oil giant Petrobras.
The communication intercepts between Mr. Zawahri and Mr. Wuhayshi revealed what American intelligence officials and lawmakers have described as one of the most serious plots against American and other Western interests since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It prompted the closing of 19 United States Embassies and consulates for a week, when the authorities ultimately concluded that the plot focused on the embassy in Yemen.
No word from the Times on who the leaker was, but it's hard to imagine an intelligence professional being so stupid. That's what makes me think it was a high level administration official who leaked the info to "prove" that the closing of the embassies wasn't just a political stunt, but a bona fide precaution against a terrorist attack.
We occassionally saw similar leaks from the Bush administration on terror alerts, although nothing as specific as was leaked in August. The alert may not have been a political stunt, but the leak was. Let's hope we can rebuild whatever connections we had that allowed us inside al-Qaeda planning.