Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Blow the agent's cover, reap the (political) reward

Mathaba.Net News: "Blow the agent's cover, reap the (political) reward
Posted: 08/11
From: Informed Comment

by Juan Cole

We know that the Pakistani government has complained that the Bush administration blew the cover of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan. Not only are the Pakistanis annoyed by the blown cover, they are also furious about the cavalier way the FBI used a fiction about a plot against the life of Pakistan's ambassador in the US to entrap two merchants into what they thought was a money-making scheme that involved providing weapons to terrorists.

Responding to volley of questions about the issue at the weekly press briefing, the Foreign Office Spokesman Masood Khan said, “ At one level this is a bizarre story; at another quite dangerous.”

The standard line about the Pakistanis in Washington is that the Pakistani government is riddled with sympathizers of the Taliban and maybe al-Qaeda and is unreliable. But from Islamabad's point of view, during the past two weeks the Bush administration has behaved like wild men, spreading around the idea of killing the Pakistani ambassador and blowing the cover of a major intelligence asset inside al-Qaeda.

Charlie Savage and Brian Bender of the Boston Globe provide more details about the unfolding story of the Bush administration outing of the double agent Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan. Khan had been an al-Qaeda communications operative until arrested July 13 and turned by Pakistani military intelligence. His name appears to have been revealed by a Bush administration official to the New York Times on Sunday, August 1 in connection with the raising of the terror alert levels in Washington and New York by Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge.

The authors point out that in her interview with Wolf Blitzer on the past Sunday, National Security Adviser Condaleeza Rice denied that the Bush administration had publicly identified Khan. So Wolf Blitzer said, "He was disclosed in Washington on background." Then Condi replied, "On background. And the problem is that when you're trying to strike a balance between giving enough information to the public so they know that you're dealing with a specific, credible, different kind of threat than you've dealt with in the past, you're always weighing that against operational considerations. We've tried to strike a balance."

The authors note:
'Later in the show, Blitzer said this exchange meant Rice had confirmed that the administration released Khan's name to a reporter on background -- an interpretation repeated in later news accounts. But Sean McCormack, a National Security Council spokesman, said yesterday that Rice did not say the leak came from American officials. "She was in the middle of making a point and he interrupted her, and she reflexively repeated 'on background,' but she was not confirming it and went on to complete her thought," McCormack said.'

Savage and Bender say that "Senior intelligence officials gave a background briefing to reporters Aug. 1 after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced an orange alert for sites in New York, Washington, and Newark. Khan's name does not appear in the transcript."

That is worth repeating. "Khan's name does not appear in the transcript."
I had been assuming that the name was given out at the Sunday briefing. But maybe not. Though, if the name was given on background, would they have recorded it in the transcript?

Savage and Bender say that the Boston Globe's intelligence contact in the government had declined to name Khan on Sunday Aug. 1, saying only that the information came from a suspect recently arrested in Pakistan. This official confirmed after the name came out that he had been talking about Khan.

There does not seem any doubt that the Bush administration has provided enormous numbers of details about al-Qaeda operations to the public since August 1, and that many intelligence professionals and officials in Pakistan, the United Kingdom and even the US are extremely dismayed at this way of proceeding.

' . . . several senior intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed dismay at the level of information that has been revealed to the media -- particularly the role that Khan's arrest has played. "Most of the people I talk to are most shocked by some of the recent details being revealed about Al Qaeda," said one senior CIA analyst who works on terrorism issues. '

I am not sure that the transcript resolves the issue of whether the name of Khan was revealed after the Ridge press conference. It is, however, possible that after the press conference and the background briefing, the reporters began working their Bush administration contacts. The one to whom the Boston Globe spoke was circumspect. The one to whom the New York Times spoke was less so.

Given the evidence from Pakistani complaints (and strong but implicit such evidence via British government complaints), there is not any doubt that the Bush administration blew Khan's cover and also spread a lot of operational details all over the press that the Pakistanis, the British and even the CIA would have liked to keep secret.

Remaining questions:

Why did Wolf Blitzer think that Khan's name had been provided "on background"?

Why did Condi Rice agree with him? Either she knew this was true and agreed, or was ignorant and just parroted back to him his statement. If the latter, which her office asserts, is actually true, then she should be fired immediately. You can't have public officials who a) don't know key information and b) purvey misinformation "reflexively" to millions of viewers about important issues.

Was the name given on background but not included in the transcript of the Aug. 1 briefing?

Or did Jehl get the information from a Bush Administration source by telephone later, on background (note: not "deep background," which whould have cautioned him against using it)?

What was the motive in releasing all this information RIGHT AFTER the Democratic Party Convention? Was the revelation of Khan's name DELIBERATE or a piece of stupidity?

Jim Lobe has a good summary of the state of play in the scandal of the Bush administration outing of double agent Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan. Two important points.

1) Lobe implicitly takes on the argument of the rightwing bloggers that the press is to blame for printing Khan's name. He says,
" Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, confirmed Sunday briefing officials had given Khan's name to the Times but insisted he was identified "on background," an assertion that caused consternation among experienced journalists here, who know that everything said by officials "on background" can be quoted so long as the name of the briefing officials is not disclosed."

Again, there is no way to shift the blame here from Tom Ridge or one of his aides, who told the press the information came from Khan. You don't tell a big group of journalists something you don't want to see in the newspapers the next day.

Lobe also writes:
' Similarly, the administration announced the arrest in Pakistan of a senior al-Qaeda operative, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, wanted for organizing the 1998 suicide bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, on the third day of the Democratic convention, and three weeks after the The New Republic weekly quoted Pakistani intelligence officials as saying the White House had asked them to announce the arrest or killing of any "high-value [al-Qaeda] target" any time between July 26 and 28, the first three days of the Democratic Convention. At the time, former CIA officer Robert Baer said the announcement made "no sense." "To keep these guys off-balance, a lot of this stuff should be kept in secret. You get no benefit from announcing an arrest like this." '

Meanwhile, kudos to New York Senator Charles Schumer, who has bravely taken up this issue and is pressing the White House to explain why it leaked Khan's name to the press.

The most concerning information so far gleaned from Khan's files is not the operations planned years ago but the evidence that a new, young generation is replenishing al-Qaeda's ranks.

Juan Cole is a professor of History at University of Michigan, and runs his on blog on the war in Iraq. This is an excerpt from it, Aug. 9 and 10."

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