What “Breach Of National Security?”
Just how serious was the leak that the Associated Press reported on last May?
In the public comments he has made this week about the Justice Department’s decision to subpoena the phone records of Associated Press reporters, Attorney General Eric Holder defended the action, in part, with the argument that the leak that the DOJ is investigation constituted a serious breach of national security. As you may recall, in May of 2012, the Associated Press reported that the United States had recently broken up a terror plot similar to the failed “underwear bomber” attack of December 2009. (That news resulted in a brief post here at OTB.) As today’s Washington Post notes, however, there’s some serious doubt over just how believable Holder’s characterization of the alleged leak actually is:
For five days, reporters at the Associated Press had been sitting on a big scoop about a foiled al-Qaeda plot at the request of CIA officials. Then, in a hastily scheduled Monday morning meeting, the journalists were asked by agency officials to hold off on publishing the story for just one more day.
The CIA officials, who had initially cited national security concerns in an attempt to delay publication, no longer had those worries, according to individuals familiar with the exchange. Instead, the Obama administration was planning to announce the successful counterterrorism operation that Tuesday.
AP balked and proceeded to publish that Monday afternoon. Its May 2012 report is now at the center of a controversial and broad seizure of phone records of AP reporters’ home, office and cellphone lines. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the unauthorized disclosure about an intelligence operation to stop al-Qaeda from detonating explosives aboard a U.S. airliner was among the most serious leaks he could remember, and justified secretly obtaining records from a handful of reporters and editors over a span of two months.
Now, some members of Congress and media advocates are questioning why the administration viewed the leak that led to the May 7 AP story as so grave.
The president’s top counterterrorism adviser at the time, John O. Brennan, had appeared on “Good Morning America” the following day to trumpet the successful operation. He said that because of the work of U.S. intelligence, the plot did not pose an active threat to the American public.
Holder said this week that the unauthorized disclosure “put the American people at risk.”
AP’s story about the foiled plot was at odds with the calming message the White House had been conveying on the eve of the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. On April 30, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement saying that there was “no indication of any specific, credible threats or plots against the US tied to the one-year anniversary of Bin Laden’s death.”
AP reporters had learned in the spring of 2012 that the CIA had infiltrated the al-Qaeda branch behind the plot, according to the individuals familiar with the story, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the record. The plot centered on an attempt to get a bomb into an assailant’s underwear, like the bomb that failed to detonate on a Christmas Day 2009 flight to Detroit.
The news service was prepared to publish its scoop on May 2, 2012. But in discussions with government officials, the CIA stressed to AP that publishing anything about the operation to obtain the bomb and thwart the plot would create grave national security dangers and compromise a “sensitive intelligence operation.”
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.
The story goes on to note that the CIA did attempt to persuade the AP to delay publishing the story for a bit longer, but when the AP refused they offered to let AP have a one hour exclusive on the story before anyone from the government would comment on it. Later, however the White House intervened and said that the AP would only be given a five minute exclusive, apparently because they had decided to respond to the story by taking a victory lap of sorts. The AP rejected that offer,which was apparently not accompanied by any explanation or reason why they should hold back any longer on the story, and then the story went live and the rest is history.
Now, I’m not necessarily suggesting that leaks should go unpunished. Even if this leak didn’t compromise national security, the fact that there’s someone in the government leaking information like this raises the possibility that they’d leak something damages in the future. At the same time, however, it seems fairly clear that the claim that this leak was among the most damaging in American history simply doesn’t add up. If that’s the case, then why would the CIA have told the AP that the national security concerns it had previously expressed were “no longer an issue?” It’s already been well-established that the Obama Administration has been more aggressive in tracking down and prosecuting leakers and whisteblowers than any previous Administration, and this case just seems to be another example of that. At the very least, though, if there is no ongoing national security threat then one wonders why the DOJ felt it necessary to obtain the AP phone records secretly rather than following established procedure by talking to the AP first instead to see if an agreement can be reached about what information would be turned over. Instead, they decided to go the heavy handed route over a leak that, in retrospect,seems far less serious than previously claimed.