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August 10, 2004

Bush Team on Defensive Over al-Qaeda Leak

by Jim Lobe

One of the greatest coups in Washington's nearly three-year war against al-Qaeda has suddenly turned sour with reports the White House prematurely exposed the identity of a key source whose contacts and communication with the terrorist group's operational masterminds had yet to be fully exploited.

The source, 25-year-old computer wizard Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, had been cooperating with Pakistani police and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) since he was quietly detained in Lahore on July 12, until the New York Times published his name last Monday after receiving a "background" briefing by the White House.

The Bush administration, which had elevated the terror-warning level in three U.S. states on the basis of information acquired from Khan, set up the briefing to dispel public skepticism about the terrorism threat, particularly after it was disclosed that much of the information on which it was based was several years old.

British and Pakistani intelligence agencies were reportedly furious with the leak, which forced UK police to hurriedly round up 13 al-Qaeda suspects who are alleged to have been in email communication with Khan. Five others who were sought by MI5 reportedly escaped capture, and there is some question that the British had gathered enough evidence to persuade a judge to keep the 13 detainees in custody, according to published reports.

"The outing of Khan, probably the most important asset the U.S. has ever had inside al-Qaeda, is a huge disaster and a setback to attempts to finish off the top leadership of al-Qaeda," according to Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan, whose Web log (or "blog") "Informed Comment" is widely read in Washington.

Two of those arrested by the British, Abu Issa al Hindi and Babar Ahmed, however, are wanted by the United States. Ahmed reportedly obtained detailed information about the movements of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the Constellation, in 2001, six months after the al-Qaeda suicide attack on the USS Cole off Yemen.

Hindi was reportedly sent to the United States at around the same time to carry out surveillance on key U.S.-based financial institutions in New York, Newark, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., which were named as likely possible targets when the terror alert was elevated eight days ago.

Those tidbits are among what U.S. officials have called a "treasure trove" of information found on computers owned by Khan, who apparently agreed to continue sending and receiving encrypted messages to his al-Qaeda contacts after his arrest in order to help catch other operatives.

Investigators reportedly found that one of the files on Hamdi's computer had been opened as recently as January, suggesting that an attack on one or more of the financial targets – which included the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington – may have been in an operational phase, justifying a heightened alert.

It was the skepticism that greeted the alert, particularly after other leaks confirmed the underlying evidence was at least three years old, that spurred the White House to provide more information to reporters, including Khan's name.

Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, confirmed Sunday briefing officials had given Khan's name to the Times but insisted he was identified "on background," an assertion that caused consternation among experienced journalists here, who know that everything said by officials "on background" can be quoted so long as the name of the briefing officials is not disclosed.

"The problem," she told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "is that when you're trying to strike a balance between giving enough information to the public so that they know that you're dealing with a specific, credible, different kind of threat than you've dealt with in the past, you're always weighing that against ... operational considerations. We think for the most part, we've struck a balance, but it's indeed a very difficult balance to strike."

But British Home Secretary David Blunkett suggested the balance had been anything but well struck. In an opinion piece published Sunday, he was openly contemptuous of the White House's management of the information. "In the United States there is often high-profile commentary followed, as in the current case, by detailed scrutiny, with the potential risk of ridicule," Blunkett wrote in The Observer.

"Is it really the job of a senior cabinet minister in charge of counter-terrorism to feed the media? To increase concern? Of course not. This is arrant nonsense."

Pakistani officials, who have been under enormous pressure from Washington, also expressed frustration. "This is a network that we are trying to break," said Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayyat, who denied the information had been leaked from Pakistan. "It is in the process of being dismantled, [but] the network is still not finished."

Even staunchly loyal Republicans said the White House had made a serious mistake. "In this situation, in my view, they should have kept their mouth shut and just said, 'We have information, trust us,'" said Virginia Senator George Allen.

Some observers charged that the public skepticism surrounding the administration's conduct in the "war against terrorism" had been largely induced by the government itself.

According to one recent poll, nearly 40 percent of the public believes the White House is manipulating the threat level for political reasons, a notion that gained more support when the Department of Homeland Security raised the threat level to "orange" or "high" on the morning after Bush's Democratic foe, John Kerry, accepted the presidential nomination, concluding a four-day party convention.

Similarly, the administration announced the arrest in Pakistan of a senior al-Qaeda operative, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, wanted for organizing the 1998 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, on the third day of the Democratic convention, and three weeks after the The New Republic weekly quoted Pakistani intelligence officials as saying the White House had asked them to announce the arrest or killing of any "high-value [al-Qaeda] target" any time between July 26 and 28, the first three days of the Democratic Convention.

At the time, former CIA officer Robert Baer said the announcement made "no sense." "To keep these guys off-balance, a lot of this stuff should be kept in secret. You get no benefit from announcing an arrest like this."

"By exposing the only deep mole we've ever had within al-Qaeda, it ruined the chance to capture dozens if not hundreds more," a former Justice Department prosecutor, John Loftus, told Fox News on Saturday.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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