Mohammed bin Nayef

Hot and Cold Running Bandar

Yesterday, just weeks after the time Al Arabiya announced Prince Bandar bin Sultan would resume his duties as head of Saudi intelligence (and therefore the mastermind of the Saudi-backed effort to oust Bashar al-Assad), Bandar was replaced by a little-known deputy.

He had resumed his position in March, just two days before the President visited the Kingdom.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan is on his way back to Riyadh where he will resume his tasks as head of Saudi Intelligence,reported news portal NOW Lebanon.

An informed Saudi source confirmed the report to Al Arabiya News.

“This is without doubt bad news for Tehran, Damascus and Hezbollah, particularly that anti-Saudi media has been propagating false information for the past two months that Prince Bandar’s absence has been due to his dismissal and due to a Saudi decision to back away from its policies regarding the regional conflict,” said the source in Riyadh.

The source confirms that Prince Bandar has actually been away due to medical reasons, however, he has resumed his activities this week from the Moroccan city of Marrakesh; where he has been recovering and where he has met with former Lebanese PM Saad Hariri and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed.

But today he’s out.

Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been relieved of his post at his request, the official Saudi Press Agency reported Tuesday.

The royal decree announcing that Prince Bandar was stepping down as president of General Intelligence gave no reasons for the move. He has been replaced by General Yousef Al Idrissi, the decree said.

I’m not sure anyone knows what these tea leaves mean. It may be that the “shoulder” injury Bandar had been treated for remains a serious health issue. It may be that — as one piece suggested — he retains some power here and has not ceded it back to Mohammed bin Nayef, who had taken over before Bandar’s return in March. It may be that this and King Abdullah’s designation of Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as second in succession were done to time with Obama’s visit, to signal that America’s more favored successor, Mohammed bin Nayef, was not going to take over any time soon.

But it also comes among two other developments that may be related. First, since about the beginning of the year and increasingly in recent weeks, the Saudis are actually cracking down on terrorism, both real — including those who went to fight in Syria — and imagined. Perhaps the former, too, was a show for the US. But it did seem to reflect some concerns that Saudi efforts in Syria were increasing security concerns for the Kingdom (as well as other countries in the region and not).

Perhaps most interesting, however, is that the same day that Bandar got “sacked” videos started showing opposition figures in Syria with US made anti-tank missiles, which is the kind of thing Bandar has decades of experience arranging. We’ll see whether those disappear like Bandar or represent a new escalation of efforts to oust Assad.

Why Would the UndieBomber Make a Martyrdom Video in Arabic?

In his drone letter to Congress 11 days ago, Eric Holder quoted a recording Anwar al-Awlaki made — it was prominently reported across the US media in March 2010, not long after he was added to the drone kill list — calling on Americans to take up jihad.

In this role, al-Aulaqi repeatedly made clear his intent to attack U.S. persons and his hope that these attacks would take American lives. For example, in a message to Muslims living in the United States, he noted that he had come “to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding upon every other able Muslim.” But it was not al-Aulaqi’s words that led the United States to act against him: they only served to demonstrate his intentions and state of mind, that he “pray[ed] that Allah [would] destro[y] America and all its allies.” Rather, it was al-Aulaqi’s actions — and, in particular, his direct personal involvement in the continued planning and execution of terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland — that made him a lawful target and led the United States to take action.

Though Holder doesn’t quote these bits, the same recording mentions Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab several times, boasting about how such attacks proved the futility of American security systems.

9/11, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then operations, such as that of our brother Omar al-Farouq which could have not cost more than a few thousand dollars, end up draining the US Treasury billions of dollars, in order to give Americans a false sense of security.

[snip]

Our brother Omar Farouq has succeeded in breaking through the security systems that have cost the US government alone over $40 billion since 9/11.

[snip]

And after the operation of our brother Omar Farouq, the initial comments coming from the administration were looking the same: another attempt at covering up the truth. But Al-Qaida cut off Obama from deceiving the world again; by issuing their statement claiming responsibility for the operation.

[snip]

The operation of our brother Omar Farouq was in retaliation to American cruise missiles and cluster bombs that killed women and children in Yemen.

When the recording was originally released, American news outlets noted they had not confirmed the authenticity of the recording. Whether it is or not, the Administration has formally presented this release — as anonymous reporting had in the past — as proof that Awlaki was trying to reach out to American Muslims in early 2010, and therefore proof he could be killed.

If the government maintains that Awlaki would propagandize Abdulmutallab’s attack in English, then why does it claim that Awlaki helped Abdulmutallab make his martyrdom video, which is in Arabic?

Here’s how they describe that claim in the narrative they submitted with Abdulmutallab’s sentencing.

Awlaki told defendant that he would create a martyrdom video that would be used after the defendant’s attack. Awlaki arranged for a professional film crew to film the video. Awlaki assisted defendant in writing his martyrdom statement, and it was filmed over a period of two to three days.

Why would al Qaeda’s best English language propagandist set out to make a video with a man schooled in English about an attack targeting America, but make it in Arabic?

Continue reading

The Saudi Intelligence without a Name

I had been wondering why John Kerry closed his meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal the day after the Boston Marathon bombing, followed by Chuck Hagel’s unscheduled meetings in Saudi Arabia later that week.

The Daily Mail claims this is why:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sent a written warning about accused Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2012, long before pressure-cooker blasts killed three and injured hundreds, according to a senior Saudi government official with direct knowledge of the document.
[snip]

Citing security concerns, the Saudi government also denied an entry visa to the elder Tsarnaev brother in December 2011, when he hoped to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the source said. Tsarnaev’s plans to visit Saudi Arabia have not been previously disclosed.

It even reports Prince Saud had an unscheduled meeting with President Obama the day after meeting with Kerry.

Now, the article implicates the Saudi Interior Ministry, though perhaps Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef is not the senior Saudi official with direct knowledge of a report handed from the Saudi Interior Ministry to (the article says) top people at the Department of Homeland Security. (Keep in mind that MbN rarely gives or at least gave anything to the US without going through his old buddy John Brennan, though also note the DM included his picture in the article.)

But there are other things about this I find interesting. First, the publication in the DM, which feels more like an info op than a report to, say, the WaPo. Then there’s the DM’s inclusion of people like House Homeland Security Chair Michael McCaul in its article (and, apparently, confirmation of a “Homeland Security Official” that the letter exists, which sounds like the same person as the HHSC aide quoted anonymously), heightening the partisan nature of this scoop.

Then there are apparent logical contradictions in the story, such as the detail that the Saudis apparently didn’t share Tamerlan’s name, but nevertheless expected the US to sort through his mail to get bomb components he could have gotten (and appears to have gotten) in a store.

It ‘did name Tamerlan specifically,’ he added. The ‘government-to-government’ letter, which he said was sent to the Department of Homeland Security at the highest level, did not name Boston or suggest a date for his planned attack.

[snip]

The Saudi government, he added, alerted the U.S. in part because it believed American authorities should be inspecting packages that came to Tsarnaev in the mail in order to search for bomb-making components.

There’s the suggestion this intelligence came from Yemen.

He dismissed the idea that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was likely trained by al Qaeda while he was outside the United States last year.

The Saudis’ Yemen-based sources, he explained, said militants referred to Tamerlan dismissively as ‘the volunteer.’

‘He was a gung-ho, self motivated jihadi who wasn’t tasked by a larger group,’ he said.

Then, finally, there’s this: the brag about the four plots the Saudis tipped us off to.

‘This is the fourth time the Saudi Arabian government has given the U.S. specific intel’ about a possible terror plot, the official said, citing prior warnings about Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber who repeatedly tried to light a fuse in his shoe to bring down American Airlines flight 63 bound for Miami in December 2001.

He also cited the 300-gram ‘ink-cartridge bombs’ planted on two cargo planes headed for the United States from Yemen in October 2010. Those explosives were intercepted in Dubai, and at an East Midlands airport in Great Britain.

The DM names two plots: Richard Reid and the toner cartridge plot.

It doesn’t name another obvious one of the four: the Saudi double agent UndieBomb plot last year, which appears to have been designed to provide the justification to allow signature strikes in Yemen.

And the fourth?

Is This Why the Press Finally Revealed the Saudi Drone Base?

In spite of all the furor over the way the NYT and WaPo sat on news of a Saudi drone base, the only explanation I know of for why they chose to reveal it now was this one.

So, what changed? Why did the New York Times decide to break the silence with a story last night including mention of the Saudi Arabia base? Managing Editor Dean Baquet told news hound-cum-New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan that the decision was connected to the nomination of John O. Brennan to move to the directorship of the CIA; Brennan, after all, was a central figure in establishing the Saudi base.

There’s more to it, notes Leonhardt:

Ultimately, we decided that naming the country did not present enough of a national-security risk to justify withholding the information. There are not many countries on the Arabian peninsula. Some Web reports had already made the connection. We were aware of no specific security risks or threats, and it is widely known that Saudi authorities are aggressively pursuing Qaeda militants in Yemen. The administration continued to object, but we notified them on Monday that we intended to include the location in an upcoming story, which we did.

Bold text added to highlight an interesting wrinkle: Sullivan’s account of the goings-on suggests that toward the end, the government didn’t escalate the matter up the hierarchy at the New York Times:

Mr. Baquet said he had a conversation with a C.I.A. official about a month ago and, at that time, agreed to continue withholding the location, as it had done for many months. More recently, though, one of the reporters working on the story told the government that The Times would reveal the location and said officials should contact Mr. Baquet if they wanted to discuss it further.

“They didn’t call this time,” Mr. Baquet said.

The depiction of continued Administration opposition is a bit rich.

After all, as the NYT presented the story, the Saudi drone base played a role in both Anwar al-Awlaki and Said al-Shihri’s deaths.

The strikes have killed a number of operatives of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s affiliate in Yemen, including Said Ali al-Shihri, a deputy leader of the group, and the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

[snip]

Not long afterward, the C.I.A. began quietly building a drone base in Saudi Arabia to carry out strikes in Yemen. American officials said that the first time the C.I.A. used the Saudi base was to kill Mr. Awlaki in September 2011.

Since then, officials said, the C.I.A. has been given the mission of hunting and killing “high-value targets” in Yemen — the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who Obama administration lawyers have determined pose a direct threat to the United States. When the C.I.A. obtains specific intelligence on the whereabouts of someone on its kill list, an American drone can carry out a strike without the permission of Yemen’s government.

[snip]

Although most Yemenis are reluctant to admit it publicly, there does appear to be widespread support for the American drone strikes that hit substantial Qaeda figures like Mr. Shihri, a Saudi and the affiliate’s deputy leader, who died in January of wounds received in a drone strike late last year.

The claim that Shihri (a former Gitmo detainee who had ties to a Saudi Gitmo deradicalized double agent) was killed by a drone is not at all clear. Continue reading

Mohammed bin Nayef’s Remarkable Prescience about Obama’s Second Term Cabinet

Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu just resigned.

Which got me thinking about my latest obsession: the Technical Cooperation Agreement beween Saudi Arabia and the US, under which (as far as the agreement admits publicly) the US helps the Saudis protect their critical infrastructure (read, oil fields) and borders. While the TCA is managed by State, it includes significant involvement on the part of DOD — particularly CentCom, DOE (because in Saudi Arabia infrastructure is energy), and Treasury (which handles the magic bank account at its core). In addition, a new focus on cybersecurity (presumably a response to the recent Aramco hack) gives DHS and NSA an increasing role.

So check out the list of people MbN met with while he was in DC from January 14 to 16, in significant part to “renew” the TCA (four months before the old one expired).

Prince Mohammad also met with a number of senior U.S. officials throughout his visit, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence James Robert Clapper, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Treasury Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Robert Mueller, and Director of the National Security Agency General Keith B. Alexander.

Remarkably, MbN didn’t waste his time with any outgoing cabinet member — not TurboTax Timmeh, not Chu, not Panetta — except for Hillary, with whom he was signing this agreement. While TurboTax Timmeh and Panetta’s departure was known, Chu’s was only rumored.

John Brennan is moving, sure, but I suspect his move won’t change his interactions with MbN — who has been a key stovepipe for Brennan — one whit.
The most interesting person MbN managed to not waste his time with on the visit, apparently, was General James Mattis, who was about to be, but had not yet been, ousted several months early the week MbN was in town.

I’m not suggesting this is all that meaningful, mind you. I just find it notable that MbN seemed to have a better sense of what was going on with Obama’s top national security leadership than most of the journalists in DC.

Why Is State Waiting to Release the Saudi Technical Cooperation Agreement?

As I noted in this post, one explicit purpose of Saudi Minister of Interior Mohammed bin Nayef’s trip to the US from January 14 to 16 was to renew the Technical Cooperation Agreement first signed on May 16, 2008 by Condi Rice and MbN’s father when he was Interior Minister. MbN and Hillary Clinton signed the renewal on January 16.

Particularly given that the prior TCA is posted on State’s website and this picture was out there (not to mention the joint statement with DHS, addressing a trusted traveler program that may end up being controversial), I was surprised that the renewal was not. I checked with State and–after a day of checking–learned that the renewed agreement “hasn’t been posted yet.”

Yes, I do plan to keep trying, both through persistence or FOIA.

But I am interested in why State wouldn’t post it right away. Perhaps it’s just internal bureaucracy, but here are thoughts about some other possibilities.

State could be hiding changes in the funding structure

First, there is a change we know has taken place since the TCA was first signed.

The TCA is basically a cooperation agreement to get direct help from us–including training and toys–to protect Saudi infrastructure and borders, particularly its oil infrastructure. As part of it, the Saudis are developing a 35,000 person force, including a paramilitary force, with US training. But unlike our other defense agreements with the Saudis (and like the Joint Commission for Economic Cooperation it was explicitly modeled on, which had been in place from the 1970s until 1999), this one includes a special bank account to fund it all.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will establish a dollar disbursement account in the United States Treasury. Any funds required by the United States for agreed-upon projects will be deposited by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the account in such amounts and at such times as are mutually agreed, and the United States may draw on this account in the amount so agreed. If upon termination of this agreement there are funds remaining in the special account after all expenses have been paid, such funds will be refunded to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

That account could fund contractors and toys. But at least at first, it could not fund US government employees.

The United States will pay for all costs of U.S. Government direct-hire employees assigned to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to perform services under this Agreement.

Less than a year into the agreement, that changed, with MbN agreeing the Saudis would also pay for US personnel salaries.

MbN was grateful for USG efforts and assured us full funding would soon follow the signing of these documents, and reconfirmed the SAG’s commitment to pay all OPM-MOI costs. He also agreed to fund all USG employee costs, concurring with any necessary TCA changes to allow such payments, commenting that “hopefully the lawyers will not cause us any problems.”

And already by the time MbN made that agreement, the US was installing military and State employees to oversee this effort (see more on these personnel here).

Now, I’m not entirely sure how innovative it is that the Saudis are funding US hires to defend their oil infrastructure. But MbN’s quip about the lawyers suggests some sensitivity on this front. Continue reading

Mohammed bin Nayef’s Debutante Ball

This Marc Lynch post on America’s Saudi problem is worth reading for its discussion of how our uncritical support for Saudi Arabia undermines our efforts in the Middle East.

America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia remains the greatest contradiction inherent in its attempt to align itself with popular aspirations for change in the region. A Saudi exception certainly makes things such as coordinating the containment of Iran easier for diplomats on a daily basis. But it sustains and perpetuates a regional order which over the long term is costly to sustain and clearly at odds with American normative preferences.

It’s also notable because it remains one of the few commentaries I’ve seen to mention Mohammed bin Nayef’s trip to DC from 10 days ago.

For instance, the symbolism of President Obama’s unusual meeting with new Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, which looked to many Saudis like an endorsement of someone they identify with the most repressive and anti-democratic trends in the kingdom, was unfortunate.

As this release from the Saudi embassy lays out in detail, MbN was in DC from January 14 through 16. There were a few explicit orders of business. Hillary Clinton and MbN renewed the Technical Cooperation Agreement (which would have expired in May) providing US support to protect Saudi critical infrastructure, especially its oil facilities. MbN signed Memoranda of Understanding with Janet Napolitano on cybersecurity and a trusted traveler program. As Lynch noted, he was granted a private meeting with President Obama, which resulted in the following readout.

Today, President Obama met with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, in the Oval Office. They affirmed the strong partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and discussed security and regional issues of mutual interest. The President congratulated Prince Mohammed bin Nayef on his appointment to Minister of Interior and asked him to convey his best wishes to King Abdullah bin Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud.

But in addition to that, MbN had a series of meetings with almost every major major player in our security establishment.

Prince Mohammad also met with a number of senior U.S. officials throughout his visit, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence James Robert Clapper, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Treasury Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Robert Mueller, and Director of the National Security Agency General Keith B. Alexander.

This leaves out only DOD and CIA (though even before he was nominated to be CIA Director, we could assume former Riyadh station chief John Brennan heavily influenced Saudi ties to CIA).

Given such a high profile visit, I have been expecting someone to discuss what merited the full coming out party (aside from MbN’s November appointment to be Minister of Interior, but MbN has been serving as our counterterrorism liaison for years). But I’ve seen little reporting to explain the trip.

And there are a few more reasons why I would really like to know what MbN discussed with almost the entire national security establishment.

There’s Turki al-Faisal’s call for “sophisticated, high-level weapons” to be sent to Syria (not to mention the recent release of a purported April 2012 Saudi directive releasing Saudi death row prisoners to fight jihad against Bashar al-Assad).

Then there’s the escalation of drone strikes in Yemen since MbN’s visit, attacking targets that have no apparent tie to America’s stated targeting criteria there–a threat to American interests. Yemen-based journalist Adam Baron has observed that the drone strikes–as opposed to overflights–have been unusually concentrated in northern provinces.

interestingly, drone uptick has been concentrated in northern provinces: 2013 has yet to see one reported in shabwa/abyan/hadramawt.

Add in a bit of confusion over the reported scope of the new drone rulebook. The WaPo’s report describes that only Pakistan is exempted from the rulebook, yet some have suggested that the CIA’s drone program in Yemen, too will be exempted.

Then there’s the role that MbN has played in the past. In addition to being the key player on the roll-out of the TCA (more on that below), he created Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization program, which this March 2009 WikiLeaks cable ties closely to the TCA renewed on the trip. At least two former Gitmo detainees who went through the program ended up serving as infiltrators into AQAP. This Saudi-US Relations Information Service release actually points to the toner cartridge plot revealed by deradicalization graduate Jabir al-Fayfi along with the recent UndieBomb 2.0 plot–which was created by a third infiltrator directed by the Saudis–in its coverage of MbN’s visit, suggesting he may have had a role there, too. Should we expect similar operations in the near future? Note, while he is understood to have been a genuine recidivist, another graduate of Gitmo and then MbN’s deradicalization program, AQAP’s number 2, Said al-Shirhi, was reported on Thursday to have died from wounds suffered in a November counterterrorism strike.

All this takes place against the background of unrest in Saudi Arabia (which Lynch describes at length). While Lynch disagrees, Bruce Reidel has been warning–and hawking a book–about a possible revolution in Saudi Arabia. To the extent the unrest represents a serious threat, it would put MbN, as Minister of the Interior, at the forefront. Interestingly, as part of the TCA renewed on this trip and led by MbN, the US helped Saudi Arabia develop a 35,000 person strong Facilities Security Force, which includes a paramilitary function, which would be crucial in the Eastern Provinces experiencing the most real unrest (the same day MbN came to the US, King Abdullah put MbN’s older brother in charge of the Eastern Province). When you couple that with the cybersecurity cooperation MbN discussed with Janet Napolitano–remember the fear-mongering around the technically simple but executed by insiders ARAMCO hack–and it suggests the US may be more worried about the Eastern Province than Lynch.

So maybe MbN’s visit represents real concerns about unrest in the Kingdom (which would play into our pressure on Iran), not least because the Saudis blame Iran for the unrest among its Shia population. Or maybe MbN’s visit represents a further expansion of our already significant counterterrorism and other covert operations.

I sure would like to know, though.

Judge Kollar-Kotelly Sees No Evil, Hears No Evil

Yesterday, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly upheld the government’s right to withhold cables already released via WikiLeaks under FOIA (see my earlier posts on this FOIA here and here). Her logic seems to have a fatal flaw: she says the State Department has proven (and the ACLU has not rebutted the claim) that the US Government owns the cables.

The ACLU simply offers no rejoinder to the State Department’s affirmative showing that all the information at issue (1) was classified by an original classification authority, (2) is owned, produced, or controlled by the United States, and (3) falls within one or more of the eight relevant categories. [my emphasis]

But then she says (noting that ACLU made no mention that these cables had also been released via WikiLeaks and therefore pretending that they might be different) that the government has not officially acknowledged these cables are authentic.

No matter how extensive, the WikiLeaks disclosure is no substitute for an official acknowledgement and the ACLU has not shown that the Executive has officially acknowledged that the specific information at issue was a part of the WikiLeaks disclosure.

I guess they should let Bradley Manning go free, then, since the State Department isn’t prepared to say the cables he is accused of leaking were authentic?

But that’s not the most troubling part of this ruling. As I lay out below–and as Kollar-Kotelly presumably knows well–the cables are full of admissions of crime, including murder, torture, and kidnapping. Thus, had she reviewed them to see whether the government’s claims that they were properly classified are valid, she would have seen that–in addition to information properly classified to protect foreign relations–a lot of the original classification and the government’s refusal to officially release them (which would presumably make them admissible in a court) serve to hide confessions of criminal activity.

So Kollar-Kotelly chose not to review these cables in camera, choosing instead to rely on the State Department declaration that makes no mention of the criminal admissions included in the cables.

In this case, because the State Department’s declarations are sufficiently detailed and the Court is satisfied that no factual dispute remains, the Court declines to exercise its discretion to review the embassy cables in camera.

It was a cowardly ruling. But all the more cowardly, given that Kollar-Kotelly prevented herself from officially reviewing a bunch of evidence of criminal wrong-doing.

Here are details on the cables Kollar-Kotelly doesn’t want to read:

The famous meeting at which Ali Abdullah Saleh promised to lie about our strikes in Yemen

Kollar-Kotelly agreed to keep what has become perhaps the most famous cable ever, in which David Petraeus and Ali Abdullah Saleh discuss the missile strikes we conducted in Yemen in late 2009.

Mind you, the government likely has a very good legal reason to keep this cable secret. The cable makes it clear we were targeting Anwar al-Awlaki (as well as Nasir al-Wuhayshi) in those strikes. And releasing that would constitute official acknowledgement of the targeting of Awlaki that the government has tried so hard to avoid. Furthermore, as I’ll show in a follow-up post, it also shows that we targeted Awlaki for death before we had evidence implicating him in a crime.

Continue reading

UndieBomb 2.0: Defying the Trend

In his story describing the lowered standards for drone strikes the other day, Greg Miller described multiple officials admitting that we’re increasing the number of drone strikes in Yemen even though there’s no evidence more people are “migrat[ing]” to join AQAP.

U.S. officials said the pace has accelerated [in the last five months] even though there has not been a proliferation in the number of plots, or evidence of a significantly expanded migration of militants to join AQAP.

That may conflict with John Brennan’s claims that AQAP has tripled in size since the UndieBomber 1.0. It may suggest that that growth all took place before the last year. Or it may suggest–particularly given the use of the word “migration”–that these officials are distinguishing between non-Yemenis and local insurgents allying with AQAP.

Whichever it is, the NCTC just reported, last year attacks from AQAP didn’t go up either–in fact, they went down slightly.

Attacks by AQ and its affiliates increased by 8 percent from 2010 to 2011. A significant increase in attacks by al-Shabaab, from 401 in 2010 to 544 in 2011, offset a sharp decline in attacks by al-Qa‘ida in Iraq (AQI) and a smaller decline in attacks by al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Everyone but John Brennan–who has a history of lying about drone strikes–seems to be saying that the risk from terrorism, while still real, is going down in Yemen, not up.

UndieBomb Plot 2.0, to the limited degree that it was a general plan of Ibrahim al-Asiri and not a plot from Mohammed bin Nayef, appears to defy the trend.

Which brings me to something that’s been gnawing at me about the public claims about UndieBomb 2.0.

Imagine you’re Ibrahim al-Asiri. A Saudi-Brit shows up, trains, impresses the trainers. He offers to do a suicide mission and–while you don’t meet with him personally–the trainers decide to send him off on UndieBomb Plot 2.0. He leaves and you wait, and wait, and wait. And … nothing. That is, according to all the people complaining that the AP reported the government had thwarted a plot, what the government had intended.

If you’re AQAP, wouldn’t it be more suspicious hearing nothing about the guy who just walked off with your UndieBomb than hearing John Brennan boasting that he had thwarted the UndieBomb. Not bragging that the Saudis had infiltrated AQAP, which is what Brennan ended up bragging about. Just a big dog-and-pony about thwarting an attack, as the Administration did when it intercepted the toner cartridge plot.

Probably, the AP’s version of the story is correct and the Administration planned a dog-and-pony show, which would have left Asiri with the impression that the Saudi-Brit was what he appeared to be, an aspiring suicide bomber that got caught.

One alternative is that UndieBomber 2.0 actually absconded with an UndieBomb, but intended to go back into AQAP and continue to collect information. I wonder, though: Giving the increasing number of targets in Yemen, you’d think it’d be at least as important to collect information about AQAP plans in Yemen as to obtain the latest UndieBomb in the guise of an attack on the US.

But I’m puzzled by the claim that the Administration wasn’t going to announce they had thwarted the plot. That doesn’t make sense.

Your Obligatory Fran Fragos Townsend Leak

Remember how the detail that UndieBomb 2.0 involved a Saudi infiltrator got out? John Brennan had a private teleconference with Richard Clarke and Fran Fragos Townsend and implied as much, which led to Clarke reporting it (and not long after, ABC confirming it with foreign sources).

At about 5:45 p.m. EDT on Monday, May 7, just before the evening newscasts, John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top White House adviser on counter-terrorism, held a small, private teleconference to brief former counter-terrorism advisers who have become frequent commentators on TV news shows.

According to five people familiar with the call, Brennan stressed that the plot was never a threat to the U.S. public or air safety because Washington had “inside control” over it.

Brennan’s comment appears unintentionally to have helped lead to disclosure of the secret at the heart of a joint U.S.-British-Saudi undercover counter-terrorism operation.

A few minutes after Brennan’s teleconference, on ABC’s World News Tonight, Richard Clarke, former chief of counter-terrorism in the Clinton White House and a participant on the Brennan call, said the underwear bomb plot “never came close because they had insider information, insider control.”

Now, National Security Council Spokesperson Tommy Vietor, who aggressively but rather unconvincingly tried to claim that the Administration had never intended to publicly announce UndieBomb 2.0, is claiming that the Administration is obligated to hold such teleconferences because the Administration is obligated to be “transparent” about potential threats.

The Yemen plot had many intelligence and national security officials flummoxed and angered by its public airing.  Despite that, a senior administration official then briefed network counterterrorism analysts, including CNN’s Frances Townsend, about parts of the operation.

But such briefings are an “obligation” for the administration once a story like the Yemen plot is publicized, insisted National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.

“The reason that we brief former counterterrorism officials is because they are extremely conscientious about working with us about what can and cannot be said or disclosed,” Vietor told Security Clearance.  “They understand that there is an obligation for the U.S. to be transparent with American people about potential threats but will work with us to protect operational equities because they’ve walked in our shoes.”

This is the Administration that appears to have just fired a guy for revealing that the bankster threat is growing while the terrorist threat is diminishing, claiming they had to hold a teleconference with TV commentators just before prime time to make sure Americans regarded a Saudi-managed plot as a real threat.

Vietor’s in trouble. Presumably on his advice, the White House was prepping a big roll out of UndieBomb 2.0 the day after this call with Townsend and Clarke. Clearly, by going ahead with the teleconference, he was trying to get maximum spin value out of the plot, after the AP had broken it. Indeed, the detail that led Clarke to learn the “plot” was really a sting–that we (or our buddies the Saudis) were in control the whole time–is precisely the same spin that Brennan’s sanctioned leaks have pushed in the Kill List and StuxNet stories.

But for a variety of reasons, it has become politically costly to admit the White House had planned to spin this. And so, Tommy Vietor keeps trying to tell new stories, hoping one will hold together.

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Emptywheel Twitterverse
emptywheel @KagroX Is there a special category in your database for stories like this?
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emptywheel RT @stcolumbia: Int'l relations are inherently hypocritical but we can think of good reasons US wouldn't want to endorse that concept of r…
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emptywheel RT @stcolumbia: Bemused so many are shocked US would say training+equipping proxies doesn't equate to direct involvement in their later use.
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JimWhiteGNV @emptywheel They reject out of hand because it comes from US intel. That's all I've been hearing all day...
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emptywheel Wonder how long it'll take UKR hawks to say this ODNI report not credible bc it places all emphasis on anon sources? http://t.co/JQRC9mOWMQ
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emptywheel @adambonin Dood. I presume you visited Cobo before the renovation. Be thankful that the renovation was mostly very very good.
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emptywheel Paul Rosenzweig has dubbed CISA "CISA Boom Bah" even though that's how he feels abt shitty CISA bill. Hope he doesn't mind sharing.
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emptywheel @stuart_zechman Man, I've been having creepy paranoid dreams for the 3 hours I sleep. I'll take yours.
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emptywheel @OKnox Why doesn't James Clapper like you as much as John Brennan does?
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emptywheel Great news! The Senate will pass USA Freedumb rather than USA Freedumber. http://t.co/9A7JtacSBk
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bmaz Prediction: Halbig reversed to look like King in en banc, so there is no circuit split and SCOTUS denies cert. and stays out of it.
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bmaz @armandodkos They are not mutually exclusive, and it is what I have said from day one. Which you know!
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