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.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Law and the Courts, Media, National Security, Terrorism, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    So that’s a judgement call…is the whistleblower worth pursuing, or isn’t he/she?
    But that’s not the argument being made by the AP, or in turn by Republicanists trying to fan the flames of political theater.
    They are alleging wrongdoing on the part of Justice…which has no basis in reality. Period.
    If there is a problem with the law…change the law. End of problem. Hardly anyone is suggesting that common sense resolution.
    This is all about political point scoring. It’s counter-productive…a waste of time…and ultimately harmful to the Republicanists who are already seen as court jesters.

  2. anjin-san says:

    Funny how zero Republicans were concerned about government overreach or the erosion of civil liberties when Bush was doing it.

  3. Ben Wolf says:

    The impression I get is that some people at high levels of the Administration have serious control issues.

  4. edmondo says:


    It’s even funnier how tame the Democrats are now that Obama is doing the same thing.

  5. anjin-san says:

    Sadly for the right, these “scandals” are starting to run out of gas. Conservatives can wish as hard as they want to for another Watergate (they would gladly accept the attendant devastating harm to our country to damage Obama), but the truth is, there just ain’t any meat on the bone, it’s all gristle, and it won’t make a very satisfying meal for them.

    Of course, that won’t stop them from flogging a dying horse…

  6. anjin-san says:

    @ edmondo

    Show me your evidence that Obama was involved in the IRS or AP affairs. I will stand by.

  7. rudderpedals says:

    Finding counterspin mitigating facts hidden by the ellipsis gives me a sad.

  8. Caj says:

    President Obama always gets personally involved in every minute detail of every office! Yes, he goes by daily to see who’s who and who’s doing what so he can be abreast of everything so he can answer all the zillions of questions he’s asked by some of these dumb reporters! How can so many reporters all ask the same question over and over? It’s like they expect the president to give a different answer to each of them! Hello! One question is enough on one subject. The media feed into the dumbness of the Republican Party and jump on board all wearing ‘we believe there’s a scandal’ hats! Stupid is as stupid does it seems!!

  9. Dazedandconfused says:

    Holder repeated the stuff the Republicans have been saying about it? That guy may be incompetent.

  10. wr says:

    @anjin-san: When Bush was doing it? Three months ago there was a leak about drones and they were screaming that the reporters should be called before congress and then jailed for contempt — and Obama should be impeached!

  11. anjin-san says:

    Conservative activist Tom Zawistowski, on the IRS affair.

    “This is unbelievable. This is Nazi Germany”

    I wonder how holocaust survivors fell about this statement.

  12. Surreal American says:


    Apparently one of the hallmarks of the Third Reich was to deny its opponents tax exempt status.

  13. Andy says:

    NPR reported yesterday that the AP story compromised an intelligence asset. The gist is this: The CIA turned someone on the inside of AQ’s organization in Yemen. This spy was able to provide a complete “underwear bomb” to US intelligence, thereby thwarting a plot, and the spy was going to continue assisting the agency. However, once it was leaked to the AP that the bomb was in the hands of US intelligence then the asset was compromised. The US government got the AP to sit on the story for a few days so the CIA could extract the asset and his family so they wouldn’t be killed.

    So, it was one of the most serious breaches because it compromised an intelligence asset with access to Al Qaeda’s organization in Yemen. The compromise of that kind of asset would certainly be one of the most serious breaches since 2001 at least. However, once the spy and his family were extracted and safe, then the national security concerns “were no longer an issue” and the AP was “free” to run its story and the government was free to publicly take credit for spoiling another underwear bomb operation. Seems pretty consistent to me.

  14. Caj says:

    Silence was golden all during the Bush years. Nothing was ever a problem just as long as it was a Republican in the White House. Attacks happened on his watch around the globe but the cat got their tongue on any cover ups or mistakes made! Thousands of live lost on both sides in Iraq but Republicans never batted an eye or called for a serious investigation. After all why would they? It was George Bush, their esteemed leader who was allowed to say and do whatever he liked simply because he was a Republican. Yet, now we see a very different story with a Democrat as president. Every move President Obama makes is a plot to take over the country or indoctrinate our children. After all, he’s foreign, not like them as they see it. They are quite right of course. He’s not like the majority of them as he’s black and that has driven them insane from the day he won in 2008. The old slang of ‘ white is right’ still holds true for lots of those on the right. They won’t come out and say it but the actions and hatred of some is so obvious you know that’s exactly how they feel.

  15. Jr says:

    @anjin-san: His comments are exactly why the IRS scandal may fizzle.

    The GOP always overreacts on these sort of things end up backfiring on them.

  16. Jack says:

    @anjin-san: Funny how the Bush administration didn’t go after the press which is the problem here. If you feel you have a leak in a department then search for the leak, don’t tap the phones of the press without a judges warrant in an effort to weed out your leak. This is a blatant overstep of authority while also crippling the 1st amendment.

  17. Jr says:

    @Jack: @Jack: They never taped their phones, they the got the calling logs from the phone companies. Hell, they didn’t even get any contents of the conversation, all they got was numbers and dates.

    They also had a Subpoena, and to be honest they didn’t need one they can simply ask the phone companies for the calling logs.

    What DOJ isn’t even illegal and it has been since Smith vs Maryland 1979.

  18. al-Ameda says:

    @Surreal American:

    Apparently one of the hallmarks of the Third Reich was to deny its opponents tax exempt status.

    Well, heck yeah, I mean, who doesn’t see an analogy between the Obama Administration and Nazi Germany?

  19. KariQ says:

    @wr: “When Bush was doing it?”

    @Jack: “Funny how the Bush administration didn’t go after the press which is the problem here.”

    What short memories we have.

    The Federal Bureau of Investigation improperly obtained calling records for more than 3,500 telephone accounts from 2003 to 2006 without following any legal procedures, according to a newly disclosed report by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

    and from 2005

    Under a presidential order signed in 2002, the intelligence agency has monitored the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years

    and this came out in 2009

    Now, what I was finding out, though, is that the collection on those organizations was 24/7, and you know, 365 days a year, and it made no sense. And that’s — I started to investigate that. That’s about the time when they came after me, to fire me. But an organization that was collected on were U.S. news organizations and reporters and journalists.

    Don’t misunderstand me, I think this is very disturbing. I do at least see that there was a security issue involved that triggered the pulling of records, but that doesn’t mean I approve. It seems overly broad. But don’t insult our intelligence by claiming Bush never did any such thing.

  20. KariQ says:

    My previous comment appears to be in moderation, but I will just add to what I said there this:

    FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III apologized to two newspaper editors yesterday for what he said was a recently uncovered breach of their reporters’ phone records in the course of a national security investigation nearly four years ago.

    Yes, Bush spied on journalists.

  21. Scot says:

    @Andy: I just hope we catch who did it.

  22. anjin-san says:

    @ Jack

    Funny how the Bush administration didn’t go after the press which is the problem here.

    What does “go after” mean? Are you saying justice did something illegal?

    And, as KariQ pointed out above, the Bush administration did indeed have issues with the press, so your statement is incorrect, something we have come to expect from you.

  23. Andre Kenji says:


    Funny how the Bush administration didn’t go after the press which is the problem here.

    He only used missiles against the Press:


  24. anjin-san says:

    Speaking of national security, I wonder when we will see an investigation into, and possible resignations over Republicans lying in an effort to damage the state department:

    Major Garrett is at the White House for us tonight. Major? MAJOR GARRETT: Scott, Republicans have claimed that the State Department under Hillary Clinton was trying to protect itself from criticism. The White House released the real e-mails late yesterday and here’s what we found when we compared them to the quotes that had been provided by Republicans. One e-mail was written by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. On Friday, Republicans leaked what they said was a quote from Rhodes. “We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation.” But it turns out, in the actual e-mail Rhodes did not mention the State Department. It read “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.” Republicans also provided what they said was a quote from an e-mail written by State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland. The Republican version notes Nuland discussing: “The penultimate point is a paragraph talking about all the previous warnings provided by the Agency (CIA) about al-Qaeda’s presence and activities of al-Qaeda.” The actual e-mail from Nuland says: the “…penultimate point could be abused by Members to beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings…” The C.I.A. agreed with the concerns raised by the State Department and revised the talking points to make them less specific than the C.I.A.’s original version, eliminating references to al-Qaeda and affiliates and earlier security warnings. There is no evidence, Scott, the White House orchestrated these changes.


    Republicans are lying in an effort to damage the diplomatic arm of our government for partisan political advantage. That damages our ability to successfully conduct foreign policy. That harms national security.

  25. Stonetools says:

    Looks like all three of these “scandals” are damp squibs that will fizzle out by next week. Sorry, Republicans.

    Some might think that the DOJ action is “heavy handed” but it’s all perfectly legal and standard procedure for DOJ investigations. Why should media corporations get kid gloves treatment again?
    There is simply no scandal here.

  26. bill says:

    @anjin-san: and there was no media outcry then? c;mon man, get real.

  27. anjin-san says:

    @ bill

    I did not say their was no media outcry, I said Republicans were very quiet.

    Where do you stand on State-smeargate?

    What did Boehner know, and when did he know it?

  28. angelfoot says:

    @Surreal American: Apparently one of the hallmarks of the Third Reich was to deny its harass its opponents and then approve their tax exempt status.

  29. stonetools says:

    Booman argues here (persuasively IMO) that this really WAS a serious breach of national security. The nub:

    1. The leak “burned” an important asset who was in inner circles of the Yemeni Al-Qaeda. The CIA had to extricate the asset as the leak endangered his life.

    2. The leak occurred in the middle of an operation intended to roll up a terrorist cell plotting a bomb attack against the USA. The CIA was able to assassinate the leader-Fahd al-Quso- on May 6th. But the bomb maker got away.

    3. The asset was also a British and Saudi agent. It therefore bollixed up the operations of other intelligence services, to the embarrassment of the USA. These services are going to be more reluctant to share assets with the USA in the future.

    Now its par for the course for civil libertarians and the press to claim that these leaks “don’t matter” and often they don’t. But it does seem that this one did.
    Civil libertarians don’t want to admit this but there still are Al-Qaeda elements out there in Yemen and elsewhere and they still are plotting to do Americans harm. This leak hampered the CIA’s attempt to stop one such group.

  30. matt says:


    Now its par for the course for civil libertarians and the press to claim that these leaks “don’t matter” and often they don’t.

    Civil libertarians are well aware that there are people that want to kill us. We just don’t think we should let these minority of madmen rule our lives or our interpretation of the constitution…

  31. fred says:

    Very serious! When CIA folks could have lost their lives how do you describe this. The responsible press also has some responsibilities in national security matters. Some would be in jail if this was the UK where they have secrecy laws governing press coverage.