The UndieBomber’s Signature Timing

As I suggested yesterday, I think the the Administration’s decision to use signature strikes in Yemen may be tied more closely to the double agent UndieBomb attack revealed in the last two days.

After all, the plot didn’t just happen yesterday. As the NYT reports, the CIA has known about it for weeks.

The bombing plot was kept secret for weeks by the C.I.A. and other agencies because they feared retaliation against the agent and his family — not, as some commentators have suggested, because the Obama administration wanted to schedule an announcement of the foiled plot, American officials said.

If the CIA has known about the plot for two weeks, they would have learned about it on or before April 24. That just happens to be the day FBI Director Robert Mueller made an unannounced visit to Yemen. Reports of the meeting have him discussing things that wouldn’t fall in FBI’s mandate, even broadly defined. But the NYT description makes it sound like the double agent “handed over” the UndieBomb to the FBI directly.

He also handed over the bomb, designed by the group’s top explosives expert to be undetectable at airport security checks, to the F.B.I., which is analyzing its properties at its laboratory at Quantico, Va.

And the AP–which first broke news of the plot–found out about it last week, though held the story to allow “sensitive intelligence operations”–presumably the killing of Fahd al-Quso on Sunday–to play out.

The AP learned about the thwarted plot last week but agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP decided to disclose the plot Monday despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement Tuesday.

So if the Saudis and CIA learned about the plot at least early enough to get Robert Mueller on a plane to act as a courier for the bomb (it’s not clear that’s what he was doing, of course), it might well coincide with the timing of the decision to use signature strikes.

Greg Miller first reported on the possibility on April 18. He stated that the idea had been presented to the National Security Council, but no decision had been reached. Though the White House and CIA were a bit more coy about matters.

U.S. officials said that the CIA proposal has been presented to the National Security Council and that no decision has been reached. Officials from the White House and the CIA declined to comment.

Also remember that Miller–as distinct from later reporting on the signature strikes–portrays the decision as being pushed by CIA alone, not CIA and JSOC.

Here’s what Miller had to say about the kinds of intelligence that went into signature strikes in Pakistan.

The CIA began flying armed drones over Yemen last year after opening a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula. The agency also has worked with the Saudi and Yemeni intelligence services to build networks of informants — much the way it did in Pakistan before ramping up drone strikes there.


A former senior U.S. intelligence official said the CIA became so adept at this that it could tell what was happening inside an al-Qaeda compound — whether a leader was visiting or explosives were being assembled, for example — based on the location and number of security operatives surrounding the site.

When the WSJ announced that the Administration had decided to use signature strikes on April 25, it mentioned “several direct threats to the US”–though it also cited an April 22 strike that sounded like it could have been a signature strike (though when asked to comment on it, US sources said the target had been in their cross hairs).

U.S. counterterrorism officials said they are currently tracking several direct threats to the U.S. connected to AQAP. The officials wouldn’t provide further details because that information is classified.

“This was an interagency decision made based on deliberations about the growing threat from AQAP and concerns about the safe haven,” a senior Obama administration official said. The White House is “broadening the aperture” for CIA and JSOC strikes, the official added.

The frequency of U.S. strikes in Yemen is expected to increase with the changes. On Sunday, a CIA-piloted drone hit a vehicle believed to be carrying AQAP militants. Intelligence analysts are working to identify those killed.

And note most of the reporting on the signature strikes talk about better intelligence we’ve developed, with frequent mention of informants.

Now, the chronology shows only estimated dates. But it sure seems possible that the “direct threats to the US” cited when justifying the signature strikes may well be the UndieBomb plot we’re only now just learning about.

Update: This, from the LAT, appears to confirm Obama learned of the bomb before approving signature strikes.

U.S. officials said President Obama was informed of the bomb in early April and was assured that it did not pose a threat to the public.

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Did Another Saudi Double Agent “Tip” Us Off to a “Plot” Against America?

ABC reports that the UndieBomber 2.0 plot revealed yesterday in breathless fashion was exposed by a double agent that–given that he delivered the bomb to Saudi Arabia–was presumably being run by the Saudis just like all the other men the Saudis have infiltrated into AQAP.

In a stunning intelligence coup, a dangerous al Qaeda bomb cell in Yemen was successfully infiltrated by an inside source who secretly worked for the CIA and several other intelligence agencies, authorities revealed to ABC News.

The inside source is now “safely out of Yemen,” according to one international intelligence official, and was able to bring with him to Saudi Arabia the bomb al Qaeda thought was going to be detonated on a U.S.-bound aircraft.

So as happened when Jabir al-Fayfi revealed the toner cartridge plot, we can now celebrate the skill of our spooks without thinking too much about what it means that the Saudis are running this terror show. (Though at least we’ve reached the point where US outlets are reporting this, rather than just British outlets.)

But here are a few questions:

Have Republicans already claimed this guy was a “recidivist” Gitmo detainee, as they have with other double agents? That effectively gives them a two-fer on detainee exploitation, “proof” that Gitmo detainees are too dangerous to release, followed by “proof” that the terrorists are planning attacks (not to mention “proof” that the CIA has good intelligence on al Qaeda).

Was the “international intelligence official” who revealed this double agent to ABC Yemeni? The Yemenis leaked Jabir al-Fayfi’s role back in 2010. If they again leaked the involvement of this double agent, we might want to start asking ourselves whether they can be trusted to keep these double agents secret.

I argued that the decision to use signature strikes in Yemen seems like a Saudi-driven demand rather than a well-considered US decision. We apparently made that decision around the same time the US reportedly learned of this “plot.” If the Saudis were–as I suspect–running this double agent like all the other double agents we’ve infiltrated into AQAP, then did they “tip” this plot as a way to convince us to make what on its face looks like a boneheaded decision?

One more bit of possible irony to contemplate. Ibrahim al-Asiri–the AQAP bombmaker reportedly behind this plot–sent his own brother, Abdullah, out to assassinate Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef back in 2009. The attempt failed. Since then, two of the men Nayef presumably infiltrated into AQAP have foiled Asiri’s bomb plots. It sort of makes you wonder how Saudi double agents keep getting close enough to al-Asiri to foil his plots, doesn’t it?

It Takes an Attempted Terrorist Attack to Actually Test Backscatter Machines

Long after rolling out backscatter machines without proving their efficacy and safety, it looks like the machines will finally be tested. As the AP reports, the government is now testing the underwear bomb Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula planned to use to conduct an Osama bin Laden death anniversary attack to see whether it would have gotten by airport security.

The FBI is examining the latest bomb to see whether it could have passed through airport security and brought down an airplane, officials said. They said the device did not contain metal, meaning it probably could have passed through an airport metal detector. But it was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.

If the machines wouldn’t have stopped the attack (note, the terrorist had not yet bought a ticket, so it’s not even clear which airports they’d be testing), then we can just take solace in the fact that Michael Chertoff will have a nice comfy retirement. If they would have, then the TSA will feel justified in all the gate grope they’ve been engaging in for years.

Of course, the real lesson is that we’d be better off relying on good intelligence to stop an attack–as it stopped this one–long before a terrorist gets caught at the gate.

How Good Are DOJ’s Reasons for Burying Its Case against Anwar al-Awlaki?

Today’s the day Eric Holder explains how his Department decided it was okay to kill a US citizen with no independent legal review, even while he says we should use civilian courts to, uh, give terrorists due process.

Now, at least as of late January, the Administration still planned not to include any real information about its case against Anwar al-Awlaki in Holder’s speech.

As currently written, the speech makes no overt mention of the Awlaki operation, and reveals none of the intelligence the administration relied on in carrying out his killing.

Since much of the evidence that has been used to implicate Awlaki came from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, I’m going to return to a question I first raised several weeks ago, why DOJ sat on the information it got from Abdulmutallab implicating Awlaki so long.

In this post, I considered why DOJ published a narrative explicitly describing Anwar al-Awlaki’s role in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s terror plot last month, rather than when it learned the information from Abdulmutallab sometime in 2010. The reason is likely evidentiary. It appears the government never persuaded Abdulmutallab to testify against Awlaki even while he was implicating Awlaki during “plea negotiations,” meaning it’s unclear Abdulmutallab would have repeated the information implicating Awlaki in court. Note, since that post, Abdulmutallab prosecutor Jonathan Tukel confirmed in court that the UndieBomber was offered–but did not accept–a plea agreement.

In this post, I will consider other reasons why DOJ may have buried (and presumably will continue to bury) their case against Awlaki: a desire to hide its signals intelligence, its informants, as well as a desire to win legal cases.

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Government Finally Releases Narrative of Anwar al-Awlaki’s Role in UndieBombing Plot

As part of its sentencing memo asking for multiple counts of life imprisonment against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the government has finally officially laid out how it claims Anwar al-Awlaki was involved in Abdulmutallab’s plot. I’ve included the entirety of the account below the rule.

I agree with Evan Perez. Now that they’ve made this narrative available, surely they can make the OLC memo authorizing Awlaki’s death available (note, the narrative says only that Awlaki and Samir Khan died, not that we killed them).

One more thing I’m interested in. I assume that Abdulmutallab, in this response to this filing, will object if he finds any of this inaccurate (so I assume it is accurate). He appears to have objected to this narrative in the presentencing report (and therefore, here), but he doesn’t say they were inaccurate.

Defendant states that the objected-to paragraphs contain “information obtained during plea negotiations in this matter and can not at this stage be used against him, for sentencing purposes.”

But given certain vague aspects of the narrative, I’m wondering how much corroborating evidence they have (particularly since several of the people mentioned in it are dead–and even Ibrahim al-Asiri, the bombmaker, was rumored to be). For example, the initial communication with Awlaki would involve data evidence. Did they get that after the fact? Or were they tracing it in real time and missed that too? Some of it might depend on other witnesses who have since returned to Saudi Arabia. And I wonder if the government has tracked down (for example) the unnamed middle man who put Abdulmutallab in touch with Awlaki? We know they have physical proof of Asiri’s involvement. What other evidence is out there?

Anyway, it’s high time the government release this information officially. And now that it’s released, they should do more and release the OLC memo.

In August 2009, defendant left Dubai, where he had been taking graduate classes, and traveled to Yemen. For several years, defendant had been following the online teachings of Anwar Awlaki, and he went to Yemen to try to meet him in order to discuss the possibility of becoming involved in jihad. Defendant by that time had become committed in his own mind to carrying out an act of jihad, and was contemplating “martyrdom;” i.e., a suicide operation in which he and others would be killed.

Once in Yemen, defendant visited mosques and asked people he met if they knew how he could meet Awlaki. Eventually, defendant made contact with an individual who in turn made Awlaki aware of defendant’s desire to meet him. Read more