I’m reading Charlie Savage’s Power Wars. While I disagree with some parts of it and have additional information that isn’t included in others (the book is already 700 pages, so it’s possible they were left out because of length), it is absolutely worth reading and provides a ton of insight about what Obama’s legal insiders were willing to share with Savage. Here’s a long interview with Glenn Greenwald about it.
As it happens, last year I wrote but never finalized a post on an area that is misleading in Savage’s chapter on the Obama Administration’s serial prosecution of leakers, about the prosecution of Donald Sachtleben, the retired FBI guy who, after being busted for kiddie porn, ultimately got prosecuted for being the leaker behind the AP’s UndieBomb 2.0 story. I’m tweaking it and posting it now. This post explains his bust.
Savage claims that Sachtleben never got IDed because he didn’t access any classified documents about the bomb and hadn’t signed the sign-in sheet of the room where it was being investigated — which is all stuff claimed in a Statement of Offense that is obviously designed to be misleading (though Sachtleben’s FBI badge did show him entering the examination space where the bomb was being examined; the Statement doesn’t say whether the specific room tracked badge entries). Savage states, Sachtleben “had visited the Quantico lab where the new underwear bomb was being examined on May 1, 2012, a few hours before Goldman and a colleague, Matt Apuzzo, first called government officials to say they knew the FBI had intercepted a new underwear bomb from Yemen” [that date of the call in the Statement is May 2]. That suggests (again, as the statement does) that Sachtleben was therefore the source for the things the AP told the government it knew on May 2.
As I’ve noted, Sacthleben contested this claim at his sentencing, which is actually consistent with what the text messages with him show: Goldman and Apuzzo were looking for confirmation of something they already knew.
“I was neither the sole nor the original source of information to ‘Reporter A’ about the suicide bomb,” Sachtleben said in a statement sent by his law firm. “The information I shared with Reporter A merely confirmed what he already believed to be true. Any implication that I was the direct source of a serious leak is an exaggeration.”
But in CIA Public Affairs emails obtained by FOIA by The Intercept last year, there’s further support for this. The emails reveal that by April 25, 2012 — 5 days before talking to Sachtleben — Goldman was already asking roughly the same questions about Ibrahim al-Asiri asked of Sachtleben. (PDF 548-9)
“We’re hearing about aqap activity that has USG spun up and Ibrahim al-asiri is back on agency’s radar.” None of that’s surprising, of course, since AP sourced the initial story to numerous officials, and it’s unlikely two Pulitzer Prize winners would single source a story.
The Statement misleadingly suggests that the when Goldman and Apuzzo called the government on May 2, two and a half hours after speaking with Sachtleben (and a full week after Goldman’s email to the CIA Public Affairs office), they stated for the first time that “they believed, but had not confirmed, that the bomb was linked to AQAP’s premier bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri.” Except the government knew, but did not reveal in the Statement, that the AP reporters had already reached out via official government channels a week earlier with some of that information. Contrary to what Savage suggests, the call on May 2 was not the “first” that government officials learned the AP was working on the story, though it may have been the first time they claimed to have confirmed details about the bomb.
The emails also show the extent of AP’s efforts to provide CIA an opportunity to weigh in on the story.
After several exchanges the week before (including a “chat” between Deputy CIA Director Mike Morell and an AP editor in which the AP agreed to hold the story), CIA’s press office set up a meeting between Goldman, Apuzzo, and Morell at 9:30 on the morning they released their story, May 7. An Apuzzo email describes the purpose. “[T]his meeting is just the one the DDCIA [Morell] suggested, to offer some details to the story we agreed to hold for a few days.” (PDF 308)
This confirms a point the AP long insisted on — that they heeded an administration request for a few days before they published the story. And in response, Apuzzo’s email makes clear, Morell had offered to provide further details on the plot. That of course means that Mike Morell was himself a source for the story, probably including for the detail that CIA had just drone-killed Fahd al-Quso. Last I checked, Morell is not in prison for leaking to the AP (though of course his influence on the story would be considered official declassification and therefore cool).
Apuzzo followed up on the meeting and the story later that day. “I know that there were some strained conversations between our bosses this evening, but as far as Adam and I are concerned, I hope you found the story fair, accurate and responsible.” (PDF 308)
Of course, CIA had no reason to be pissed, given that the AP story celebrated their successful interception of a plot. Indeed, there is a very high likelihood that the CIA talked the AP reporters out of including more sensitive details — such as that the plot was really a sting run by a Saudi asset — that detail came out in other outlets, thanks in part to John Brennan and Peter King (the latter of whom was in turn blabbing about something the CIA had just briefed him), within a day. Or, something implied by the story but not stated directly, that the Administration had deployed a bunch of Air Marshals to Europe to protect against a threat that had never really been a threat and that they had already neutralized anyway. Those are the damning details of the story, but they weren’t in the AP’s version of it.
But the government came after them anyway. And, after members of Congress — including Peter King, who had served as a source for journalists!! — demanded a head, Donald Sachtleben served as a convenient one to offer up.
The story the government has told about Sachtleben — that they found he had a Secret CIA cable among his kiddie porn but didn’t pursue it any further until they exposed the sources of the entire AP newsroom — has never made sense. But as a guy who had already confessed to kiddie porn charges and had actually only served as the confirming source for some of the least sensitive information in the leak, he was convenient.
And while Savage appropriately lays into the Administration for the damage they did to journalism with their pursuit of leakers, the back story behind the scapegoating of Sachtleben suggests DOJ has been far more cynical about leaks and who gets prosecuted for them than suggested in Savage’s chapter.
I’m going to take a break from noting how Lawfare ignores the public record on NSA spying — both of past failures to inform Congress, and of Intelligence Community lies about having done so — to note how Lawfare ignores the public record on drone killing.
On Sunday, Lawfare posted a long review of Jeremy Scahill’s book Dirty Wars. While it is not entirely negative, it stakes a claim on what the public record shows to argue that Scahill glossed over what a dangerous man Anwar al-Awlaki was. Yet the review itself ignores key details in the public record.
First, full disclosure. I’m friends with Scahill, and he acknowledged me in the book. But given that I’m not quoted, I suspect he acknowledged me because I’ve followed certain aspects of the narrative he covered — especially the evidence in the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab case and the shoddy OLC case to support Awlaki’s killing — in more detail than most other reporters.
It’s for that reason that I find the review to be so problematic.
After spending two paragraphs praising the on-the-ground reporting Scahill did, Lawfare reviewer Nick Basciano complains,
Scahill simply skips over facts that don’t promote his narrative of Awlaki. One such example comes in Awlaki’s relationship with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Christmas Day Bomber” who attempted to detonate almost three ounces of PETN aboard Northwest flight 253 on its descent to Detroit. A publically-available and widely-cited sentencing memorandum for Abdulmutallab describes how Awlaki housed Abdulmutallab in Yemen and took him to AQAP’s primary bomb-maker, Ibrahim Al Asiri. There, they “discussed a plan for martyrdom mission” and Awlaki himself gave the bombing plot “final approval and instructed Defendant Abdulmutallab on it.” Awlaki’s “last instructions,” the memorandum continues, “were to wait until the airplane was over the United States and then to take the plane down.” Without dealing with this evidence from the Abdulmutallab trial, Scahill admits that Awlaki was only “in touch” with Abdulmutallab, insisting that “no conclusive evidence [was] presented, at least not publicly, that Awlaki had played an operational role in any attacks.” Why such a relevant piece of evidence isn’t included in Scahill’s retelling of the Abdulmuttallab plot is unclear, but it isn’t the only instance of turning a blind eye to evidence linking Awlaki’s directly to terrorism.
The trial, of course, took place several weeks after the final event of Scahill’s narrative, the killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki [Correction: The trial took place on October 11 and 12, 2009, before Abdulrahman’s death. But as I note, the narrative presented there differs in key ways from the one Basciano adopts]. The sentencing took place several months later. That doesn’t mean Scahill couldn’t have included the evidence from “the trial.” But it was not part of the narrative arc Scahill told in the book.
Moreover, Basciano’s description ignores the reporting Scahill did do on Awlaki’s role in Abdulmutallab’s attempted attack, reporting based on talking to people who knew of Abdulmutallab’s movements in Yemen.
A local trial leader from Shabwah, Mullah Zabara, later told me he had seen the young Nigerian at the farm of Fahd al-Quso, the alleged USS Cole bombing conspirator. “He was watering trees,” Zabara told me. “When I saw [Abdulmutallab], I asked Fahd, ‘Who is he?'” Quso told Zabara the young man was from a different part of Yemen, which Zabara knew was a lie. “When I saw him on TV, then Fahd told me the truth.”
Awlaki’s role in the “underwear plot” was unclear. Awlaki later claimed that Abdulmutallab was one of his “students.” Tribal sources in Shabwah told me that al Qaeda operatives reached out to Awlaki to give religious counseling to Abdulmutallab, but that Awlaki was not involved in the plot. While praising the plot, Awlaki said he had not been involved with its conception of planning. (318)
After having complimented Scahill’s efforts to speak to people on the ground, Basciano did not mention that he had done so, too, in regards to the Abdulmutallab attack.
Moreover, if Scahill had used the material released in relation to the trial, the evidence would be much muddier than Basciano lays out. Continue reading
But, as bmaz emphasized in his post on Donald Sachtleben’s plea agreement, there’s no hint of prosecuting Brennan, who leaked Top Secret details about the British/Saudi double agent into AQAP, even while they’re imprisoning Donald Sachtleben, who is only accused of leaking details he knew to be Secret.
A law enforcement official indicated that the case has not been officially closed but the charges against Sachtleben are the only ones expected.
(Sure, the evidence that Sachtleben was involved with kiddie porn seems solid, but then Brennan drone-killed children, so he’s not above reproach for his treatment of children either.)
But that is by no means the weirdest thing about the government’s treatment of the UndieBomb 2.0 leak investigation.
The entire premise of the FBI narrative is that they exercised greater care with a kiddie porn accusee they had dead to rights than they did the 100 or so AP reporters who got sucked up in their overbroad dragnet. They would have you believe that, even after seizing a CD holding a November 2, 2006 SECRET CIA intelligence report at Sachtleben’s house in May 2012 pursuant to a kiddie porn warrant (which they have not produced in the docket), they just sat on his devices for almost a year until they obtained the phone records for 20 AP phone lines, in a seizure far more intrusive into journalism than any recent known subpoena.
Sachtleben was identified as a suspect in the case of this unauthorized disclosure only after toll records for phone numbers related to the reporter were obtained through a subpoena and compared to other evidence collected during the leak investigation. This allowed investigators to obtain a search warrant authorizing a more exhaustive search of Sachtleben’s cell phone, computer, and other electronic media, which were in the possession of federal investigators due to the child pornography investigation.
(I may be mistaken, but I don’t think the FBI made this claim in any court document, so I assume it is bullshit, especially since they had had to do extensive forensic searches of Sachtleben’s computer and he had already signed a plea deal forfeiting it.)
They would also have you believe the AP had no inkling of the UndieBomb plot until ABC reported inflammatory claims about cavity bombs on April 30, 2012, even in spite of ABC’s reference to TSA head John Pistole’s earlier fear-mongering about it and in spite of additional reporting about broad Air Marshall mobilization. DOJ goes to great lengths to make you believe AP first texted Sachtleben on April 30 and not, say, on April 28 (which would mean the kiddie porn investigation accelerated after such contact), though there’s no reason to believe that’s true and the AP call records DOJ obtained apparently go back to well before April 30. They also suggest AP was asking Sachtleben about an Asiri bomb, though the first text they include is an assertion — not a question — that Asiri has been busy.
They would have you believe that two Pulitzer Prize winners would defy White House and CIA wishes with a story sourced to a single source who, just a day earlier, had provided a mistaken guess about the excitement. Continue reading
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?
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.
A recently unsealed decision from Colleen Kollar-Kotelly just changed the interpretation of the Espionage Act for Washington DC to cover leaks that wouldn’t even harm the US.
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled that the prosecution in the pending case of former State Department contractor Stephen Kim need not show that the information he allegedly leaked could damage U.S. national security or benefit a foreign power, even potentially. Her opinion was a departure from a 30 year old ruling in the case of U.S. v. Morison, which held that the government must show that the leak was potentially damaging to the U.S. or beneficial to an adversary. (In that case, Samuel L. Morison was convicted of unauthorized disclosure of classified intelligence satellite photographs, which he provided to Jane’s Defence Weekly. He was later pardoned by President Clinton.)
“The Court declines to adopt the Morison court’s construction of information relating to the ‘national defense’ insofar as it requires the Government to show that disclosure of the information would be potentially damaging to the United States or useful to an enemy of the United States,” Judge Kollar-Kotelly wrote in a May 30 opinion. The opinion was redacted and unsealed (in partially illegible form) last week.
The prosecution must still show that the defendant “reasonably believed” that the information “could be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation” and that the defendant “willfully” communicated it to an unauthorized person. But it would no longer be necessary for prosecutors to demonstrate that the information itself could potentially damage national security or benefit an adversary.
Imagine how this ruling could empower prosecutors in the AP UndieBomb 2.0 investigation, in which the AP’s story reported only that the US had thwarted an UndieBomb plot. They didn’t report it until after the White House said they had cleared up a sensitive issue relating to the plot (which in practice ended up being the drone death of Fahd al-Quso).
This would make it easier for the government to prosecute AP’s sources for leaking information that even the government had suggested, to the AP, wouldn’t harm US interests.
And of course, all that builds on top of the now routine treatment of leaks to the press as Espionage, something fairly unusual before the Obama Administration.
A lot of people are responding furiously with what should not be news: that Eric Holder approved the warrants in the investigation into Fox report James Rosen’s story.
Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on a controversial search warrant that identified Fox News reporter James Rosen as a “possible co-conspirator” in violations of the Espionage Act and authorized seizure of his private emails, a law enforcement official told NBC News on Thursday.
Holder previously said he recused himself from the AP subpoena because he had been questioned as a witness in the underlying investigation into a leak about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen. His role in personally approving the Rosen search warrant had not been previously reported.
DOJ policy requires Attorney General sign-off on such warrants and subpoenas, Holder has no apparent reason to recuse in this case, so we should have all expected he signed off on them.
To be clear, I don’t defend the warrant to get Rosen’s emails; the claims he conspired in a leak are terribly dangerous. So I won’t defend Holder for having approved the warrant in the least.
But people seem to be suggesting that because Holder approved the Rosen warrant, he could have approved the UndieBomb 2.0 subpoena, so must be dodging some issue by recusing.
Consider a few basic details. First, the UndieBomber 2.0 mole reportedly infiltrated AQAP up to a year in advance, which would put him in Yemen, at least, if not AQAP, before Anwar al-Awlaki was killed September 30, 2011. And UndieBomber 2.0 was eventually working with Fahd al-Quso, who had a role — perhaps a more dominant role — in some of the attacks used to justify Awlaki’s killing, including UndieBomb 1.0 and the toner cartridge plot.
As I noted, for some reason DOJ did not implicate Fahd al-Quso in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s sentencing memo 2 months before the UndieBomb 2.0 “plot” was “thwarted,” even though he clearly had a role in the earlier UndieBomb plot. But to the extent that sentencing memo was about providing a public justification for the Awlaki killing (and it was billed as such when it was rolled out), then it would have gone through review if not have been developed in the Attorney General’s office, as that’s where everything else on transparency on the Awlaki killing went (and probably still goes, up to Wednesday’s letter on the topic).
In other words, to the extent that an operation to get either Ibrahim al-Asiri or Quso would be tied up with the at that point recent killing of Awlaki, the AG’s office would be involved (and all that assumes things went down generally as the government claims it does; the AG’s office could be far far more involved, and therefore exposed by the leak, in a number of other scenarios).
Then there’s the question of the security theater rolled out for the Osama bin Laden anniversary, the “scores” of Air Marshals sent to Europe to prevent a threat that had already been rolled up. While the implementation of such security would be directed primarily out of Department of Homeland Security, the decision to deploy it likely involved discussions of the President’s entire national security team, including Eric Holder.
And all this makes sense. The only way the UndieBomb 2.0 leak could have anywhere near the gravity Eric Holder claims it does (even though the claimed reasons for its seriousness appear totally bogus) is if this kind of high level operation and deception were going on.
Which really ought to raise more questions about why the Administration (or Holder) panicked so much about the leak in the first place.
On February 10, 2012, the government went out of its way to hide Fahd al-Quso’s ongoing involvement in terrorist attacks against the US. Three months later, on May 6, 2012 — the day before the AP published its story about CIA thwarting an UndieBomb attack — the government killed Quso in a drone strike.
DOJ’s narrative of UndieBomb 1.0 hides Quso’s role in it
On February 10, 2012, as part of his sentencing, DOJ submitted a narrative telling one version of how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to bomb Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit. In it, the government tied Abdulmutallab (who, after all, had pled guilty to a conspiracy to commit terrorism) to three AQAP figures: It claimed Anwar al-Awlaki, among other things, gave Abdulmutallab his final instructions that the attack be directed at a US plane and the bomb be set off over US soil. It explained how AQAP bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri constructed the bomb and personally trained Abdulmutallab on its use. And it noted that while Abdulmutallab was training with AQAP, he met Samir Khan who (the narrative helpfully noted in a footnote) would go on to publish Inspire.
The narrative DOJ submitted on February 10 did not mention Fahd al-Quso by name.
Watering trees with UndieBomber 1.0
That’s odd, because Quso reportedly did play a role in Abdulmutallab’s attack. According to a March 2011 AP story, Quso may have been the last person Abdulmutallab met with before he set off on his attack.
Before Abdulmutallab set off on his mission, he visited the home of al Qaeda manager Fahd al-Quso to discuss the plot and the workings of the bomb.
Al-Quso, 36, is one of the most senior al Qaeda leaders publicly linked to the Christmas plot. His association with al Qaeda stretches back more than a decade to his days in Afghanistan when, prosecutors said, bin Laden implored him to “eliminate the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula.”
From there he rose through the ranks. He was assigned the job in Aden to videotape the 1998 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others, but fell asleep. Despite the lapse, he is now a mid-level manager in the organization. Al-Quso is from the same tribe as radical U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who had an operational role in the botched Christmas attack.
In December, al-Quso was designated a global terrorist by the State Department, a possible indication that his role in al Qaeda’s Yemen franchise has grown more dangerous.
Al-Quso was indicted on 50 terrorism counts in New York for his role preparing for the Cole attack and served more than five years in prison in Yemen before he was released in 2007. On the FBI’s list, al-Quso ranks behind only bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri among the most sought-after al Qaeda terrorists.
After meeting with al-Quso, Abdulmutallab left Yemen in December 2009 and made his way to Ghana, where he paid $2,831 in cash for a round-trip ticket from Nigeria to Amsterdam to Detroit and back. [my emphasis]
Indeed, Abdulmutallab’s tie to Quso is one of the only aspects of Abdulmutallab’s trip in Yemen that has been independently verified.
In his book, Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill notes,
A local tribal leader from Shabwah, Mullah Zabara, later told me he had seen the young Nigerian at the farm of Fahd al-Quso, the alleged USS Cole bombing conspirator. “He was watering trees,” Zabara told me. “When I saw [Abdulmutallab], I asked Fahd, ‘Who is he?'” Quso told Zabara the young man was from a different part of Yemen, which Zabara knew was a lie. “When I saw him on TV [after the attack], then Fahd told me the truth.” [first bracket original, second bracket mine]
Later in the book, Scahill reports that Zabara was assassinated this January by unknown killers.
Is Fahd al-Quso Abu Tarak?
The details of Quso’s ties to Abdulmutallab — particularly that the Nigerian was watering trees on Quso’s farm — make me wonder whether Quso isn’t the person Abdulmutallab called Abu Tarak in his initial confession on Christmas Day 2009.
In his opening argument in the abbreviated Abdulmutallab trial, AUSA Jonathan Tukel described what Abulmutallab initially confessed after he was captured. Along with all the things later attributed to Awlaki and Asiri, Tukel said Abdulmutallab described having daily talks with Abu Tarak about jihad.
He told the FBI that he and Abu-Tarak spoke daily about jihad and martyrdom and supported al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
In a narrative on Abdulmutallab’s commitment to jihad also submitted for the sentencing based on his personal reviews of Abdulmutallab’s interrogation reports, DOJ expert Dr. Simon Perry suggested that Abdulmutallab was living with Abu Tarak when in Yemen, though he says that was in Sanaa, not Shabwah.
While residing at Abu Tarak’s residence in Sana, Yemen he was mainly confined to his residence and discouraged from any communication with the outside world (phone, email). During this period, UFAM spoke regularly with Abu Tarak and three other individuals who visited him daily, speaking with them about Jihad and martyrdom.
In any case, regardless of whether or not Quso is Abu Tarak, or whether Abu Tarak is an amalgam of AQAP figures, it seems clear that Quso played some role in Abdulmutallab’s preparation.
And yet DOJ chose not to mention that this guy — who had been trying to attack the US since the October 12, 2000 USS Cole attack — was among the notable AQAP figures who prepared Abdulmutallab to attack the US.
Was DOJ hiding that they knew how to infiltrate AQAP?
Whatever Quso’s role in UndieBomb 1.0, the implication of the timing is clear: he was central to the UndieBomb 2.0 plot. Indeed, it is almost certain that CIA asked AP to delay publishing their story to give time to kill Quso, who had just sent our mole off with another UndieBomb.
In other words, one plausible explanation for why DOJ did not confirm what other reports made clear is that it did not want to tip Quso off to what Abdulmutallab told them about him. That is, if they were already planning the op against him, they wouldn’t want him to know they knew how Abdulmutallab had found him 2.5 years earlier.
That is just one possibility, of course.
But if that’s the case — if DOJ obscured Quso’s role in the government’s most extensive accusations that Anwar al-Awlaki had an operational role in targeting the US — then are the claims about Awlaki true?
It has taken several days for the government — apparently, almost exclusively DOJ — to try to spin its secret seizure of AP call records. The new version of the government’s ever-evolving story is that the reason the AP story was so damaging was because it prevented CIA from using the mole to locate Ibrahim al-Asiri, AQAP’s bomb-maker.
Here’s how the guy who headed DOJ’s Office of Legal Policy until last year explained this on Friday.
About a year ago, someone within the government who had access to highly classified information about an intelligence operation in Yemen involving a double agent saw fit to talk about it with the Associated Press. When senior government officials learned that the Associated Press had this story and intended to publish it, those officials realized that the agent’s cover had been blown. Anxious for his safety, the officials prevailed on the AP to delay publication so that first the agent’s family and then the agent himself could be extracted to safety. The AP then published its story, which focused on thwarting a plot to use a new and improved underwear bomb to blow up an airplane bound for the United States.
What went completely without mention in the initial coverage was the fact that thwarting this plot was not the objective of the ongoing undercover operation. 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. Whoever disclosed the information obtained by the AP had not only put the agent’s life and his family’s life in danger. He also killed a golden opportunity to save untold more lives that now remain at risk due to al-Ashiri remaining at large.
Here’s how three former high-ranking DOJ officials explained it in an op-ed today.
The United States and its allies were trying to locate a master bomb builder affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that was extremely difficult to penetrate. After considerable effort and danger, an agent was inserted inside the group. Although that agent succeeded in foiling one serious bombing plot against the United States, he was rendered ineffective once his existence was disclosed.
And here’s how Walter Pincus reported it today.
Whoever provided the initial leak to the Associated Press in April 2012 not only broke the law but caused the abrupt end to a secret, joint U.S./Saudi/British operation in Yemen that offered valuable intelligence against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
One goal was to get AQAP’s operational head, Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso. That happened one day before the AP story appeared.
A second goal was to find and possibly kill AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, whose first underwear device almost killed Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism chief.
Hitting targets in the United States is one of AQAP’s goals. In association with Saudi intelligence, the CIA inserted a Saudi who convinced AQAP that he wanted to be a suicide bomber. Eventually he was outfitted with Asiri’s newest device, which he was to use on a U.S. aircraft. After the device was delivered to U.S. officials, someone or several people leaked the information to the AP. [my emphasis]
Now, Pincus’ story is generally balanced. Unlike the other two, he admits that Fahd al-Quso got killed while the AP held their story and that, in killing Quso, the government accomplished at least one objective of the mole’s mission and did so thanks to AP’s willingness to cede to government requests about this story. He also admits that before the AP ever came to the government with the story, the mole’s UndieBomb had already been delivered to the US.
That chronology is important. And it is one backed by the government’s official timeline (not to mention the CNN report that said the mole had turned over the bomb around April 20 and the report that Robert Mueller traveled to Yemen for an unscheduled 45 minute meeting on April 24). The day after the AP story, Jay Carney said that Obama had been informed about the plot in “early April.”
Q Do you expect that he’ll address at all — I know we got statements yesterday, but the Yemeni al Qaeda plot, do you think he will address that at all in his remarks today?
MR. CARNEY: I don’t expect him to address that issue in his remarks. I mean, I will say that he’s certainly pleased with the success of our intelligence and counterterrorism officials in foiling the attempt by al Qaeda to use this explosive device. It is indicative of the kind of work that our intelligence and counterterrorism services are performing regularly to counter the threat posed by al Qaeda in general, and AQAP in particular.
So he was regularly — as you know, he was made aware of this development in early April and he was regularly briefed on it by John Brennan. [my emphasis]
The NSC’s official statement on that day also said Obama had been informed of the plot in April.
So the government rolled up the plot in April — almost certainly by April 24 — and then the AP came to the CIA and White House with their story about a foiled plot on May 2.
It’s that timing that undermines the claim that the government still hoped to use the mole to get at Ibrahim al-Asiri. Because to maintain that claim, you’d have to explain how an AQAP operative who had been entrusted with the latest version of Ibrahim al-Asiri’s UndieBomb sometime in early April, had left (at least as far as Sanaa), had not apparently succeeded in his mission (which was, after all, meant to be a suicide bombing), could return to AQAP without the UndieBomb and infiltrate even further than he had the first time.
“Oh, hi, AQAP gatekeeper” — their story must imagine the mole saying as he returned to AQAP — “I’ve both failed in my mission and somehow lost the bomb you gave me, but based on that would you be willing to let me spend some quality time with even higher-ranking AQAP operatives?”
The government must believe AQAP has far worse counterintelligence than Asiri’s longevity would seem to suggest. Alternately, they’re just inventing stories right now to justify their seizure.
The same day that the White House released 94 pages of Benghazi emails, which not only show that most at CIA supported the talking points used by the Administration but also include annotations of the CIA roles involved that reveal far more about CIA’s structure than any FOIA response I’ve ever seen, Tommy Vietor went on the record about UndieBomb 2.0 with both the WaPo and MSNBC. It appears he did so to reinforce the fear-mongering language Eric Holder used (though like Holder, Vietor doesn’t explain why John Brennan got a promotion after contributing to such a damaging leak). He said this to WaPo.
Vietor said that it would be a mistake to dismiss the unauthorized disclosure because al-Qaeda failed to carry out its plot.
“We shouldn’t pretend that this leak of an unbelievably sensitive dangerous piece of information is okay because nobody died,” he said.
But the WaPo account also seems to serve (like the Benghazi email dump does) to place blame on CIA.
It answers a question I hinted at yesterday: whether the CIA and White House were on different pages on what to do with the AP story. Reportedly, after AP had given the CIA time to kill Fahd al-Quso (the WaPo doesn’t mention that was the purpose of the delay), CIA’s Mike Morell told the AP the security issue had been addressed, but asked for one more day. As AP considered that request, the White House overrode that discussion.
Michael J. Morell, the CIA’s deputy director, gave AP reporters some additional background information to persuade them to hold off, Vietor said. The agency needed several days more to protect what it had in the works.
Then, in a meeting on Monday, May 7, CIA officials reported that the national security concerns were “no longer an issue,” according to the individuals familiar with the discussion.
When the journalists rejected a plea to hold off longer, the CIA then offered a compromise. Would they wait a day if AP could have the story exclusively for an hour, with no government officials confirming it for that time?
The reporters left the meeting to discuss the idea with their editors. Within an hour, an administration official was on the line to AP’s offices.
The White House had quashed the one-hour offer as impossible. AP could have the story exclusively for five minutes before the White House made its own announcement. AP then rejected the request to postpone publication any longer.
This must be the crux of the animosity here. CIA told AP the danger had passed (though according to some reports, our informant was still in Yemen). At that point, the AP should have and ultimately did feel safe to publish. But then the White House made this ridiculous request, effectively refusing to let AP tell this story before the White House had a shot at it.
Which is why this claim, from Tommy Vietor, is so absurd.
But former White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor, recalling the discussion in the administration last year, said officials were simply realistic in their response to AP’s story. They knew that if it were published, the White House would have to address it with an official, detailed statement.
“There was not some press conference planned to take credit for this,” Vietor said in an interview. “There was certainly an understanding [that] we’d have to mitigate and triage this and offer context for other reporters.”
Jeebus Pete! If your idea of “mitigating and triaging” AP’s fairly complimentary story is to make it far, far worse by hinting about the infiltrator, you’re doing it wrong!
Vietor, who presumably had a role in setting up the conference all at which Brennan tipped off Richard Clarke (though according to Brennan, he did not sit in on the call), insists to MSNBC that telling someone we had “inside control” of this plot does not constitute a gigantic clue that the entire plot was just a sting.
Tommy Vietor, then chief national security spokesman for the White House, disputed the idea that Brennan disclosed sensitive details in his background briefing and said it was “ridiculous” to equate Brennan’s use of the phrase “inside control” with having an “informant.”
It’s a nonsense claim, of course. Someone fucked up the “mitigating and triaging” process, and that’s what made this leak so dangerous, not AP’s initial story. But, presumably because AP didn’t let White House tell the official story before they reported their scoop (and did they plan on telling us all we had inside control on the op if they got to tell the story first?!?), the AP has, as far as we know, borne the brunt of the investigation into the leak.
For the moment let me reiterate two more details.
It appears that Vietor is blaming CIA for the way this went down. And guess what? The guy who blathered about “inside control” has now taken over the CIA.
Then there’s this. Eric Holder noted yesterday that the investigation into David Petraeus for leaking classified information — understood to be limited to his mistress Paula Broadwell, mind you — is ongoing. That means the FBI interview he had on April 10 was not sufficient to answer concerns about his involvement in leaking classified information.
It’s interesting this is coming down to a conflict between White House and CIA, isn’t it?
It turns out Fahd al-Quso, whom the government alleged was Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s external operations director when he was killed in a drone strike May 6 of last year, never lived to see the AP’s UndieBomb 2.0 story, which presumably described a plot he masterminded. That’s because he died during the time period AP was delaying publication at the government’s request.
As part of its effort to show how ridiculous it is for the Administration to seize 20 phone lines of call records to investigate a story on which the AP ceded to White House requests, the AP released this timeline of Administration statements surrounding their UndieBomb 2.0 plot.
Most of the dates were previously known (and have appeared in my posts on the subject). But I believe this one–the date AP first went to the White House with the UndieBomb story–is new.
May 2, 2012: Federal government officials ask the AP to delay publishing a story about a foiled plot by al-Qaida’s affiliate in Yemen to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner, which the AP had recently discovered. They cite national security concerns. The AP agrees to temporarily delay publishing until national security concerns are allayed.
Which makes the timeline from that period look like this:
April 18: Greg Miller first reports on debate over signature strikes
Around April 20: UndieBomb 2.0 device recovered
Around April 22: John Brennan takes over drone targeting from JSOC
April 22: Drone strike that–WSJ reports, “Intelligence analysts [worked] to identify those killed” after the fact, suggesting possible signature strike
April 24: Robert Mueller in Yemen for 45 minute meeting, presumably to pick up UndieBomb
April 25: WSJ reports that Obama approved use of signature strikes
April 30: John Brennan gives speech, purportedly bringing new transparency to drone program, without addressing signature strikes
May 2: Government asks AP to delay reporting the UndieBomb 2.0 story, citing national security
May 6: Fahd al-Quso killed
May 7: Government tells AP the national security concerns have been allayed; AP reports on UndieBomb 2.0
May 8: ABC reports UndieBomb 2.0 was Saudi-run infiltrator
May 15: Drone strike in Jaar kills a number of civilians
While it was fairly clear in any case (and reporting had linked the UndieBomb 2.0 plot with Quso’s death), this timeline makes it crystal clear.
The delay was about killing Fahd al-Quso.
And yet, even after the AP waited 5 days to break the story, allowing the government to drone kill a human being in the interim, the Administration still launched a witch hunt against the AP for a story that became damaging only after John Brennan ran his blabby mouth.