If Only DOJ Hadn’t Burned AP’s Sources …

The State Department announced a broad but vague warning today.

The Department of State alerts U.S. citizens to the continued potential for terrorist attacks, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.  Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks both in the region and beyond, and that they may focus efforts to conduct attacks in the period between now and the end of August.  This Travel Alert expires on August 31, 2013.

Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests. U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.  Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services.  U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.

We continue to work closely with other nations on the threat from international terrorism, including from al-Qa’ida.  Information is routinely shared between the U.S. and our key partners in order to disrupt terrorist plotting, identify and take action against potential operatives, and strengthen our defenses against potential threats.

There’s a part of me that thinks this might be credible and serious.

After all, between Iraq, Pakistan, and Libya, up to 1,750 men have just escaped prison, and extremists claim responsibility for the first two prison breaks. That’s a lot of men running around who might make mischief (though you’d think it would take a bit of time to organize after the breaks).

That said, there are aspects of this that remind me of the politicized alert surrounding the April 2012 thwarting of our own plot in Yemen (which was rolled out in May 2012, well after any threat had subsided). There’s John Pistole’s ostentatious boosting of AQAP bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri as “our greatest threat.”

The use of a new explosive has been previously reported, but Pistole continued with less familiar details about Underwear 2 that reflect the growing sophistication of Asiri’s sinister craftsmanship. He said the device included redundancy, by mean of two different syringes to mix liquid explosive compounds–”a double initiation system,” apparently a response to a failure of Abdulmutallab’s initiation process. In essence, Pistole said, “they made two devices.”

Finally, Pistole said, the new bomb was encased in simple household caulk in an effort to trap vapors that might alert any bomb-sniffing machines or dogs that did happen to be capable of identifying the explosive.

“So you really have a twisted genius in Yemen,” Ross observed. “That is our greatest threat,” Pistole replied. “All the intel folks here [at the forum] know that is a clear and present danger.”

Similar sensationalized reporting preceded and followed the exposure of the UndieBomb 2.0 plot last year.

There’s the increased drone activity in Yemen. Who knows! Maybe, like last year, the plot has already been rolled up and we’re just waiting to confirm one of the several recent drone strikes have taken out our target?

And there’s the apparent disparate treatment of the threat, with the US issuing a broad alert across the Middle East but with the Brits focusing thus far only on their Yemeni Embassy.

The State Department just happened to announce its support for Yemen in conjunction with President Hadi’s visit this morning, of which security aid remains the largest part, not long before this alert went out. Last year the thwarted plot was designed to coincide with the approval of signature strikes in Yemen.

Last year, the many people the US deployed to prevent a threat that had already been rolled up may have been one of the sources that revealed the threat had already been rolled up. If this is kabuki, then perhaps the same thing would happen again: some guy sent to protect flights in the Middle East might complain that it’s just show. Perhaps someone like the AP could report that the threat has been thwarted and we can go back to worrying about climate change as the most urgent threat to “the homeland.”

Except for one thing. Since last year, DOJ went positively nuclear on the AP, which exposed the kabuki last year. Without warning, DOJ obtained records of 20 AP phone lines, identifying the sources of up to 100 journalists, for at least a 2 week period. We’ve heard not one peep about DOJ prosecuting anyone in the UndieBomb 2.0 leak (especially not CIA Director John Brennan, who made the leak far worse). But DOJ did make sure sources are going to be far warier about speaking with the guys who undermined the White House kabuki last year.

So as you wonder about the seriousness of a plot that feels like a lot of the vague warnings the Bush White House used to release, remember how useful it was back when reporters were allowed to do their jobs.

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.

19 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    After all, between Iraq, Pakistan, and Libya, up to 1,750 men have just escaped prison, and extremists claim responsibility for the first two prison breaks. That’s a lot of men running around who might make mischief (though you’d think it would take a bit of time to organize after the breaks).

    OTOH, it took a bit of organization to spring these folks, so if there’s a plot afoot, it’s not as if they just started planning on the day these folks got out.

  2. rip current says:

    “There’s a part of me that thinks this might be credible and serious.”

    we had two immediate thoughts yesterday when this bs started coming across the wires:

    1) dick cheney got a hold of the megaphone – again

    2) usa usg trying to distract usa and world from Snowden revelations and Manning’s kangaroo travesty

    total crap.

    and even if it is not, too bad for usa and its sheeple.

  3. orionATL says:

    coincidence is a part of life to be sure, but coming as this dramatic warning does from the state department, with the added tag “in an abundance of caution”,

    and coming as it does at the peak of a major admin crisis over nsa’s domestic spying,

    i think smart money has to consider this warning and accompanying state dept theatrics as a likely obama admin con whose intention is to scare unruly congresscattle back into line,

    and retake headlines from the spying headlines generated by guardian/glenn greenwald and wapo.

    in short, another presidential psy ops deployed against the american people.

  4. lake effect snow says:

    @orionATL: absolutely. when we first saw this last night on the wires our immediate reaction was “bullshit” for exactly the same reasons. right out of cheney’s playbook.

  5. Snoopdido says:

    From CNN’s Chris Lawrence. Barbara Starr and Tom Cohen – U.S. issues global travel alert, to close embassies due to al Qaeda threat – http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/02/politics/us-embassies-close/index.html?hpt=hp_t1

    “According to three sources, the United States has information that al Qaeda in Yemen was in the final stages of planning for an unspecified attack.”

    And:

    “U.S. officials who spoke to CNN on condition of not being identified said intelligence agencies have been tracking a growing threat against American and Western targets by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen for a few weeks.

    In recent days, the officials said, further intelligence indicated a potential attack in Yemen and threats against U.S. interests in the Middle East and North Africa, prompting the Obama administration to issue a public warning and plan to close diplomatic facilities in the region Sunday.”

    Should we wonder whether this intel comes from another Saudi/British/US mole in AQAP?

  6. Ben Franklin says:

    AQ may be tired of looking like the gang who couldn’t plan a trip to the crapper. They are due for a tactical victory, without footwear or Tidy-whities, but more like the typical mad-bomber we are used to. The huge explosion in Homs yesterday using rpg’s against an ammo depot is probably the extent of their reach.

  7. Snoopdido says:

    @emptywheel: As you’ve posted, there is a distinct possibility that a US government press conference announcing the successful foiling of an AQAP plot is in our near future.

    Starr, as one of the US government’s consistently useful stenographic tools, may be part of their pre-drama kabuki buildup.

  8. Ben Franklin says:

    Great damage has been done to the Monolith by Manning et al and they could be staging a comeback for their reputation as ‘protectors’.

    Imagine if they show, with charts and graphs, that they could have gotten metadata to stop an attack, if only Snowden hadn’t spilled their candy in the Lobby. The metrics for civil liberties would take a giant step backward.

  9. Frank33 says:

    That twisted genius al-Asiri is our greatest threat. Even greater than all the other threats. Another couple more Undie Bombs and al-Asiri may hurt someone. Those dastardly AP reporters blew the cover off of Undie #2. Otherwise, the Undie #2 plot, by the Intelligence Community could have protected the Homeland, and captured al-Asiri. Thanks a lot AP. How does it feel to let al-Asiri be free to make ever more sophisticated Undie Bombs.

    Its true objective was to gain enough intelligence to locate and neutralize the master bomb builder, Ibrahim Hassan al-Ashiri, who works with an Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Penetrating AQAP is incredibly difficult. This double agent provided a rare opportunity to gain critical, life-saving information

    And Al Qaeda never even suspected Undie #2 was a double agent. Now Al Qaeda will be suspicious of all Undie Bomber volunteers. Thanks again AP, for revealing a double agent who could have been used again and again for Undie bombing.

    Although Al Qaeda must have wondered how Undie #1 was escorted through security without a search.

  10. Ben Franklin says:

    @Frank33:

    Even if I stipulate that the premise and facts are in alignment from the PuffHo piece, how do we reckon the source of the problem?

    We might want to visit the climate of distrust present between the general public and their government. When finally forced into the daylight’s antiseptic inconvenience, they lie then they admit the prevarications to Congress and the Public with the straight faced Texas Hold ’em attytood. These are our Leaders speaking.

    If that’s leadership on legal and ethical grounds, then the status quo opts to mimic that behavior, while seeing it as leadership, rather than slouching toward Bethlehem.

  11. orionATL says:

    @Frank33:

    “..Penetrating AQAP is incredibly difficult…”

    that’s the funniest line since “who do you believe…”,

    and only true if you are a blond, blue-eyed arian using walnut juice for skin paint.

    probably half the membership of “al-q arabpenis” is saudi, jordanian, yemeni gov, and who knows who else.

    remember, all you need to do mischief is a car or a rubber dingy full of explosives and a couple of suicidees – boom.

    nsa is not very good at detecting this stuff. in fact, few security organizations are, unless they are doing undiecover work.

  12. Frank33 says:

    @orionATL:
    Or as Maxwell Smart would say, “Would you believe, penetrating Al Qaeda is somewhat difficult? Would you believe easier than penetrating SIRPNet?”

  13. Jessica says:

    “Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests.”

    What sort of ‘private interests’ do they mean? ‘Private’ as in ‘secret’ or as in ‘private sector’. Not that it would make the threat to US citizens abroad any less real, but it’s curious how often these terrorist threaten ‘private interests’ yet it’s the ‘public’ that must pay for the thrwarting. (And not just monetarily.)

  14. Bill Michtom says:

    But we don’t need AP’s sources. We have “Despite Gains, Leader of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan Says Troops Must Stay” from Matthew Rosenberg in the Times (http://nyti.ms/14rxM6N) featuring this impressive paragraph:

    In an interview on Sunday that he had requested, General Dunford, 58, sought to counter an abundance of disheartening news recently about the war and to make a case for why American troops need to stay in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ends next year.”

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