Did AP Learn about Fake UndieBomb 2.0 because Real Marshals Deployed to Prevent It?

In my next post, I’m going to revisit this post, where I showed 372 days ago that at least one or two of the major early sources for the most damning information on UndieBomb 2.0 came from non-US based sources.

But before that, check out this passage from the ABC story that first revealed UndieBomb 2.0 was an inside job.

The plot appeared timed to coincide with the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, but the bomber did not get as far as purchasing plane tickets or choosing a flight. As ABC News first reported last week, the plot led the U.S. to order scores of air marshals to Europe to protect U.S.-bound aircraft. Flights out of Gatwick Airport in England received 100 percent coverage, according to U.S. officials.

While I haven’t been able to find the reporting in question [update: see below], at least according to the article, ABC had been told the previous week — around the same time the AP first learned about the purported UndieBomb 2.0 plot — that there was a massive effort on the part of the US Air Marshals to cover a bunch of US-bound planes …

… that the Intelligence Community knew had no UndieBomb on board.

Indeed, according to this CNN report, the UndieBomb itself had been recovered around April 20, 10 days before the US Marshals started covering 100% of the US-bound flights from Gatwick. [Update: Scott Kinney notes there are only 4 flights from Gatwick a day.]

One source told CNN that the device was recovered around April 20, more than a week before the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, and was then handed over to the United States for forensic analysis.

And I’ve long suspected that Robert Mueller picked up the UndieBomb on April 24 when he made an unannounced visit to Yemen for a 45-minute meeting.

Now, this is potentially damning news for the Administration’s story for two reasons.

First, if this timeline is correct, the Administration mobilized hundreds and hundreds [update: ABC uses “scores”] of Air Marshals to defend against a threat that they knew had been mitigated over a week earlier.

Oh yeah — and those hundreds and hundreds [“scores”] of Air Marshals sent to Europe to defend against an AQAP air attack that the Marshals believed was scheduled to take place around the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death on May 1? You don’t suppose any of them would go to the press to debunk the Administration’s claims that there had been no credible threat on the anniversary? I can just imagine it: “The White House was lying when it claimed there was no threat on May 1. I know because I worked 72-hours straight because we had information there was going to be an AQAP hit on planes,” they might say to an ABC or an AP reporter. Which is, of course, precisely the spin the AP had in their story,

The operation unfolded even as the White House and department of homeland security assured the American public that they knew of no al-Qaida plots against the US around the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.

Which is, in turn, the reason John Brennan freaked out so badly he gave Richard Clarke the hint that ultimately led to the infiltrator being exposed.

I said there was never a threat to the American public as we had said so publicly, because we had inside control of the plot and the device was never a threat to the American public.


I — I — what I’m saying is that we were explaining to the American public why that IED was not in fact a threat at the time that it was in the control of individuals. When — when we say positive control, inside control, that means that we (inaudible) that operation either environmentally or any number of ways. It did not in any way reveal any type of classified information. And I told those individuals and there are, you know, transcripts that are available of that conversation, “I cannot talk to you about the operational details of this whatsoever.”

Moreover, if there really were hundreds [“scores”] of Air Marshals sent to Europe to protect against a threat the IC knew didn’t exist, you don’t suppose any of them would be among the 550 people the FBI has interviewed in this case?

It sure would explain why there were so many people read into a secret that is supposed to be one of the most important secrets ever.

If, in fact, ABC’s reference is correct, if in fact they had reported the previous week that all flights from Gatwick had Air Marshals on board, if in fact those Air Marshals were on board, it would explain a great deal about this story.

Update: On April 30, around 10 days after the US recovered the UndieBomb (which was never described as a cavity bomb), ABC had this report:


(Off-camera) Good evening. As we come on the air, ABC News has learned that US authorities are studying a new terror threat tonight, members of al Qaeda using body bombs, explosives that have been surgically implanted in their bodies to evade security. Tomorrow, it will be the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, making this week a time of heightened concern on the ground and in the sky. And ABC’s chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross is here with these new details. Brian?


(Off-camera) Diane, well, tonight American and European authorities tell ABC News, they fear al Qaeda will use these so-called body bombs to target Americans overseas and US flights coming in from overseas.



(Voiceover) As a result, security at several airports in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe and the middle ease has been substantially stepped up, with a focus on US carriers. And additional federal air marshals have been shifted overseas in advance of this week’s anniversary of the bin Laden raid. The plot is not so far fetched. Medical experts say there is plenty of room in the stomach area for surgically implanted explosives.


The surgeon would open the abdominal cavity and literally implant the explosive device in and amongst the internal organs.


(Off-camera) Right in there?


Right in between the intestines, the liver and the stomach. [my emphasis]

And the following day — on the anniversary of the OBL killing — they replayed the report.

So ABC clearly reported Air Marshals had been deployed in response to this threat that had been mitigated 10 days earlier.

Did our government send hundreds of Air Marshals to Europe to make this fake UndieBomb claim credible?

Update: Here’s what National Security Council sent out after the AP published their story on May 7 of last year.

The President was first informed about the plot in April by his Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan, and he has received regular updates and briefings as needed from his national security team. While the President was assured that the device did not pose a threat to the public, he directed the Department of Homeland Security and law enforcement and intelligence agencies to take whatever steps necessary to guard against this type of attack. The disruption of this IED plot underscores the necessity of remaining vigilant against terrorism here and abroad. The President thanks all intelligence and counterterrorism professionals involved for their outstanding work and for serving with the extraordinary skill and commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand. [my emphasis]

Note the statement admits Obama ordered “Homeland Security” (which includes TSA which includes the Air Marshals); it just doesn’t say they got deployed a week after the UndieBomb got picked up.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

28 replies
  1. allan says:

    The best Security Theater money can buy.
    Too bad the same resources aren’t devoted
    to OSHA inspections of ag COOPs.

  2. Snoopdido says:

    That CNN article you reference Emptywheel has this to say about what happened to the bomb:

    “The agent who penetrated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and returned from Yemen with the group’s new “airline bomb” was always under Saudi control and was not a double-agent, two sources briefed by Saudi counterterrorism officials have told CNN.”

    Later in that same CNN article they address the issue of how the bomb was moved that only adds to the confusion:

    “It is still unclear how the device left Yemen. One Arab source familiar with the investigation said he assumed it had been carried on a plane, which would raise troubling questions about airport security in the capital, Sanaa. But another hinted that it had been carried overland, in the possession of the Saudi mole.”

    The Washington Post’s article on the story the very same day as the CNN article had this to say about the bomb’s travels:

    “And the man turned the device over to his Saudi handlers inside Yemen.

    The Saudis flew the bomb out of the country on a noncommercial jet and handed it over to American officials in an unidentified third country, according to Mustafa Alani, director of security and defense studies at the Gulf Research Center in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, who has close contacts with the kingdom’s intelligence and counterterrorism agencies. A U.S. official confirmed aspects of his account.”

    This leads to confusion obviously and questions about the hypothesis that FBI Director Robert Mueller picked the bomb up on his April 24th 2012 visit to Yemen.

    Given the US government’s serious investigative response to the original AP story on UndieBomb 2.0, it seems like the resulting chill on news reporting of the story has left a good number of unanswered questions and contradictory “facts” out there.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @Snoopdido: Alani is one of the–if not the key–propagandists on this entire story. He’s sort of a Saudi intel mouthpiece. Not sure what faction of the Saudi family he belongs to. But I suspect–and suspected at the time–that after this blew up he was deployed to shift the blame and timing to make what happened worse for the US.

    I think I’m the only one who ever made the Mueller connection but I’d bet a great deal of money I’m right on that front. But you see, if the FBI has the bomb on April 24, then you can’t really explain sending 200 Marshalls to Europe a week later, can you? That would make the Marshalls deployment obvious propaganda.

  4. Snoopdido says:

    I just saw your update Emptywheel confirming that there were indeed news reports on the increase in airport and airplane security from ABC on April 30 prior to the May 7 AP story.

    Don’t consider this as raining on your parade about why the US government increased in airport and airplane. Instead, I’m throwing out a possible alternative explanation for that increase.

    The simplest description of that explanation is that US intelligence (and its other intelligence partners in the operation, the Brits, the Saudis, and the Yemenis) didn’t know what they didn’t know.

    By that I mean that no one knew if this one new recovered UndieBomb was the only UndieBomb in the pipeline. They may not have had sufficient intel as to whether there were other UndieBombers who also were equipped with the new UndieBomb 2.0.

    It may be that the undercover UndieBomber did not know or was walled off from potentially other similar participants.

  5. thatvisionthing says:

    Brian Ross and ABC — and anthrax stenography comes to mind (i.e. Glenn Greenwald http://www.salon.com/2008/08/01/anthrax_2/).

    Also, stepped up security for Undiebomb 2.0, but Undiebomber 1.0 got special pass to board without a passport. Remembering passenger Kurt Haskell’s statement to the court at Undiebomber’s trial, here: http://www.emptywheel.net/2012/02/16/doj-once-again-succeeds-where-dod-has-failed/#comment-334885

    [edited for length]

    On Christmas Day 2009, my wife and I were returning from an African safari and had a connecting flight through Amsterdam. As we waited for our flight, we sat on the floor next to the boarding gate. What I witnessed while sitting there and subsequent events have changed my life forever. While I sat there, I witnessed Umar dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt, being escorted around security by a man in a tan suit who spoke perfect American English and who aided Umar in boarding without a passport. The airline gate worker initially refused Umar boarding until the man in the tan suit intervened. The event meant nothing to me at the time. Little did I know that Umar would try to kill me a few hours later as our flight approached Detroit. The final 10 minutes of our flight after the attack were the worst minutes of my life. During those 10 minutes I sat paralyzed in fear. Unfortunately, what happened next has had an even greater impact on my life and has saddened me further.

    When we landed, I was shocked that our plane taxied up to the gate. I was further shocked that we were forced to sit on the plane for 20 minutes with powder from the so called bomb all over the cabin. The officers that boarded the plane did nothing to ensure our safety and did not check for accomplices or other explosive devices. Several passengers trampled through parts of the bomb as they exited the plane. We were then taken into the terminal with our unchecked carry on bags. Again, there was no concern for our safety even though Umar told the officers that there was another bomb on board as he exited the plane. I wondered why nobody was concerned about our safety, accomplices or other bombs and the lack of concern worried me greatly. I immediately told the FBI my story in order to help catch the accomplice I had seen in Amsterdam. It soon became obvious that the FBI wasn’t interested in what I had to say, which upset me further.

    For one month the government refused to admit the existence of the man in the tan suit before changing course and admitting his existence in an ABC News article on January 22, 2010. That was the last time the government talked about this man. The video that would prove the truth of my account has never been released. I continue to be emotionally upset that the video has not been released. The Dutch police, meanwhile, in this article (show article), also confirmed that Umar did not show his passport in Amsterdam which also meant that he didn’t go through security as both are in the same line in Amsterdam. It upsets me that the government refuses to admit this fact.

    [edited for length]

    Also, when I was searching for link to that text, Haskell’s name also showed up in a PDF of the Abdulmutallab trial you have posted wherein Haskell is being excluded as a witness at the Undiebomber’s trial at the government’s request: http://www.emptywheel.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/111011-Abdulmutallab-Trial.pdf

  6. Snoopdido says:

    @Snoopdido: An additional key point is that if my alternative is even close to what actually happened and US intelligence and its foreign allies didn’t know what they didn’t know, then that deployment of massive numbers of US air marshals to ride herd on all flights to the US puts the lie to Brennan’s and Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano’s statements about “no credible threats”.

  7. joanneleon says:

    That makes a ton of sense re: 550 interviews being the hundreds of marshals.

    Air marshals work for the Homeland Security department, TSA, right? I wasn’t aware that the AG was notified of bomb plots, etc. I really don’t know much about who gets read into what but I was kind of surprised that Holder had been privy to that information. You’d think that the bomb plot/double agent thing would have been closely held.

    I also remember that part of Brennan’s testimony where he was asked why he gave those details and why he held the teleconference with Clarke and Townsend et al, and I remember how jumpy Brennan was about it.

    COATS: And what — and you expressly called this teleconference — arranged this teleconference, so for what exact purpose?

    BRENNAN: There were a number of people who were going to be going out on the news shows that night who were asking about the — the reports about this intercepted IED, and wanted to get some context as far as the nature of
    the threat, and also were asking questions about, “Well, you said and the U.S. government said that there was no threat during the anniversary of the bin Laden take-down, so how could there not have been a threat if in fact this IED was out there?

  8. Snoopdido says:

    @emptywheel: Which leads me to another piece of speculation. I wonder if there were more than one undercover Saudi infiltrator. One low-level “volunteer” that actually was prepped to wear the UndieBomb 2.0 and was supposedly prepared to commit suicide in using it, and one that was further up in the AQAP command chain who knew much more about the overall AQAP plans and plotting.

    It hardly seems likely that the “volunteer” would be volunteering to wear the UndieBomb 2.0 and be high enough up in the AQAP food chain to know much about AQAP’s plans and plotting. It seems more likely that the “volunteer” would be what is typically known as cannon fodder.

    If both were potentially exposed by AP story and had to be evacuated, that might explain why the US, the Brits and the Saudis were so pissed at the leak to AP.

  9. emptywheel says:

    @Snoopdido: Yes. Which is probably why that was the source of Brennan’s panic.

    Having said that, there was no way out, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  10. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon: Right, precisely.

    I NEVER saw the anniversary thing as a big deal in real time–and I followed this as closely as anyone. It was only reading his testimony in conjunction with the AP report that I got how panicked he was about that point.

    And given this detail, it all makes far more sense.

  11. Frank33 says:

    Thankfully, more leaky people in dee cee are leaking like John Brennan on a trip to Paris with General Petraeus. But the Undie #2 -Underwear Fails Again, is a sequel almost the same as the first Undie Bomber #1.

    Even after the informant left Yemen with the explosive device and turned it over to his handlers, U.S. intelligence officials believed they could use him to help disrupt and destroy the terrorist network operating from Yemen, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to three congressional aides briefed on intelligence matters.

    They said spy services could make it appear that the underwear bomb had failed and could send their agent back to Yemen to help identify and track Al Qaeda’s top bomb makers and planners.

    Sequels can be dangerous. The Intelligence Community was going to do the same thing as before. They would scare us with an Undie Bomb. The one plot twist is that Undie #2 returns to Al Qaeda Central Command, to strike again, with more underwear bombs.

    I give it two thumbs down, as Siskel and Ebert would say.

  12. orionATL says:


    “… I wasn’t aware that the AG was notified of bomb plots, etc. I really don’t know much about who gets read into what but I was kind of surprised that Holder had been privy to that information…”

    i wondered that too. why the ag ahead of time?

    i think that understanding why holder was involved from the beginning will provide important insight into what this byzantine plot (by ametican, et al., security officials) was intended to accomplish.

    on the surface, the charge against ap is suspect in the extreme, not the least because of “bleating” by viedor

    but mostly because the columns and rows don’t sum to the same number.

    there’ s missing info here that is maddening.

  13. Snoopdido says:

    @Frank33: I particularly like this part of that Los Angeles Times article:

    “Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. called the unauthorized disclosure “within the top two or three most serious leaks that I have ever seen.” He added, “It put the American people at risk.”

    A former CIA lawyer, who asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly, called that an exaggeration.

    “Any time you’ve got a human being involved who was compromised, it’s serious,” he said. “But it certainly wasn’t one of the top two or three that I would have picked. And I never heard of a leak investigation throwing out a dragnet over this many reporters.”

    The claim that the leak put Americans at risk rests on the argument that any compromise of an intelligence operation against terrorists theoretically increases the danger that they could harm Americans, he said.”

  14. Snoopdido says:

    @orionATL: @joanneleon: The reason that comes to mind that Attorney General Holder would be in the loop and read in might be regarding turning over the UndieBomb 2.0 to the FBI for analysis. As the FBI works for the DOJ, if FBI Director Mueller was going to be in the loop, then it would be likely that his boss Holder would be too.

  15. joanneleon says:

    @Snoopdido: Okay. FBI reports up to DoJ? Now it makes sense. Somehow I didn’t realize that’s where they reported. Don’t know why I didn’t know that :)

  16. orionATL says:


    “… The claim that the leak put Americans at risk rests on the argument that any compromise of an intelligence operation against terrorists theoretically increases the danger that they could harm Americans, he said.”…”


    i have come to the view that all the doj’s inappropriate persecution/prosecution, e.g., thomas tamm, john keriakou, jeffrey sterling, young muslim goofballs, now the ap

    were based not on the seriousness of what they personally ( or institutionally) had done,

    but on PROSPECTIVE harm others might do if this “behavior” were not nipped in the bud – this is the nypd “broken window” style of PROSECUTING – not policing, but prosecuting –

    and i think it is inappropriate and, one might expect, illegal – but apparently not given tamm and kiriakou’s prosecutions – not to mention aaron swartz.

  17. orionATL says:


    but why ahead of time?

    what persons or institutions could be so confident the doj/fbi would be needed that they would tell them the impending FUTURE?

    fortune telling ain’t easy work :))

  18. Alexander says:

    Learned about this blog several days ago. Very nice.

    My take on this is that the combination of the mole’s not blowing up anything and al-Quso getting killed with a drone strike after having successfully evading the CIA for six years would have made AQAP realize that they had a mole. So neither the AP story nor Brennan’s “blabbing” did significant damage to the infiltration operation: the operation was blown when the CIA/White House decided to kill al-Quso, because they wanted him dead very badly.

    Even if they had not killed al-Quso, I would not have wanted to be the mole coming back to AQAP with the story that the bomb didn’t go off. All this talk about how the operation could have been continued if it wasn’t for the leaks just seems to be a way of justifying extending Obama’s war against the press to the mainstream, corporate media.

  19. Hmmm says:

    On Rachel M’s show, Richard Engel posits an alternate theory that the AP subpoena was all about finding whatever USG individual leaked the fact that the US had the UndieBomb 2.0 in hand. That seems to be the key item of intel that caused all the hair-on-fire, not that “we” had control of the device all along which is what came from Brennan. Would this support that idea that there may have been more than one of our spies in the network, I.e. maybe after one was blown the other was still OK… until the info that we had the device came out? Seems like it doesn’t all quite fit yet.

  20. Arbusto says:

    @21Hmmm: My take on the Maddow/Engel confab was a mistaken conflation of infiltrator and device. The FBI had the device at Quantico and the AP story blew the cover of an MI6 double and seriously damaged current and future infiltrations according to Engel. I don’t buy that angle and I’m sick of poor reporting/stenography such as Engel seemed on this issue.

  21. scribe says:

    So much for operational security. Reminds me of the press watching the Domino’s delivery traffic during the Clinton administration to see whether whatever was then the crisis du jour was really serious or not, by knowing whether the folks were working late and eating in the office.

    In other words, just good reporting and lousy opsec making a good story.

  22. Scott Kinney says:

    The story doesn’t make sense to me.

    First, and it’s the math geek in me, a ‘score’ is not ‘hundred’. 5 score is 100, and 10 score is 200. If there’s some kind of equivalence between ‘scores’ and ‘hundreds’; you are either applying ‘hundreds’ to 200 (which is technically true but misleading) or you mean ‘scores’ as in 10, 15 or 20 score. But if you meant 20 score, you should have switched to ‘hundreds’.

    Second, ‘covering all the US-bound flights out of Gatwick’ sounds dramatic. Gatwick serves 2 US cities; Orlando and Las Vegas. Each city has 2, maybe 3 flights per day. That means at least 6 FAMs per day to cover all US-bound flights from Gatwick. Staffing to cover 3 days without return trips by the same FAMS is 18. Or slightly less than 1 score. OK, put 2 FAMs on each flight. 2 score. Still not in the hundreds.

  23. joanneleon says:

    Did Engel say that AP blew the cover of the MI6 double agent? I don’t see how that could possibly be true and at least three senators in the confirmation hearing understood that it was Brennan who blew the cover, and one of them attending meetings in London trying to smooth the whole thing over, and he seemed pretty clear that Brennan was the culprit. If that’s what Engel said, and coupling that with the Media Matters trying to protect Brennan, I find it to be really weird and possibly an attempt to confuse people. But that transcript from the confirmation is sitting right there in black and white.

    Another thought is that if MI6 was that pissed off at Brennan, that’s not good for national security because surely it will affect the way the two intel agencies work together. That’s another good reason why Brennan should never have been nominated or confirmed, IMHO.

  24. Adam Banks says:

    Just wondering what these putative Air Marshals would be packing. Obviously handguns are basically a no-no in the UK, one threat we don’t generally have to worry about. Would these “scores”/hundreds of US law enforcement personnel be unarmed? Or would they be introducing lethal weapons to UK flights that couldn’t otherwise be present?

  25. thatvisionthing says:

    @emptywheel: His only witness.

    Kurt Haskell statement: I continued to be greatly saddened at this point as I felt the truth continued to be hidden. When Umar listed me as his only witness, I was happy to testify, not on his behalf, but on behalf of the truth. I never expected to testify, as my eyewitness account would have been too damaging to the myth that the government and media are putting forward. A mere 5 days after I was announced as a witness, there was an inexplicable guilty plea which exasperated me as I no longer would be testifying.

    It sounds like both Undiebomber 1.0 and Kurt Haskell have stories yet to be heard. Would be amazing and wonderful if they could still do that.

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