When the Bush administration revealed that its recent decision to raise the terror-threat levels in New York and Washington was based largely on 3- to 4-year-old intelligence, it found itself under great pressure to prove the heightened alert was not simply a cynical manipulation of public fear for political purposes. In an apparent move to prove the validity of the threat, it released the name of a Pakistani al-Qaida operative, Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, who had been captured in Pakistan on July 12 and was providing extremely valuable intelligence, including the information about plots against specific U.S. targets.
On Aug. 8, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice defended the White House’s action, saying Khan’s name was provided only “on background.” While this quieted domestic critics, the move had a huge cost: the loss of a strategic intelligence asset who might eventually have helped dismantle the al-Qaida leadership in Southwest Asia.
Pakistani and British intelligence officials expressed dismay at the revelation. Pakistan lost a valuable asset in a sting operation, leading some al-Qaida suspects to change their hideouts, and Britain was compelled the next day to arrest 12 terror suspects it had been watching. What’s more, after Khan’s name was revealed, CNN reported, U.S. government sources said that they noticed “a drop in intercepted communications among suspected terrorists.”
Critics of the Bush administration from both parties as well as some U.S. intelligence experts are now wondering whether the administration is completely incompetent in the handling of classified intelligence of strategic importance or whether there is a more philosophically based, policy-related explanation for its release of the Pakistani operative’s name. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., immediately demanded an explanation from Bush’s homeland security advisor, Frances Townsend. And Sen. George Allen, R-Va., declared on television last Sunday: “They [members of the administration] should have kept their mouth shut and just said, ‘We have information, trust us.’”
Although there has been some speculation that the administration’s revelation was a sophisticated move to destabilize al-Qaida, Reuters quotes a former U.S. intelligence official as saying, “I don’t think that the U.S. intelligence community has shown enough creativity over the last few years for anyone to think of anything as smart as misdirection, or trying to send signals to al Qaeda.”
In the short three-week period between Khan’s capture and the ill-considered release of his name, significant damage was done to the al-Qaida leadership. His assistance was crucial in the arrest of a number of al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan, including Ahmed Ghailani, who was involved in the simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. With Khan’s help, British authorities were able to arrest an entire al-Qaida cell in the U.K. Unfortunately, another cell that had been planning attacks on London’s Heathrow Airport is believed to have been alerted by the announcement of Khan’s arrest and has since eluded capture.
Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident but just the latest callous act of disregard for the sensitivity, viability and credibility of global intelligence operations by the Bush administration.
In the fall of 2001 — while images of gallant American Special Forces and Northern Alliance tribesmen galloping on horseback across the central Asian steppes en route to Kabul, Afghanistan, captured the American public’s attention — the primary debate in Washington policy circles focused on the next phase in the “war on terror.” Those who understood the transnational, nonstate nature of the al-Qaida threat envisioned a broad, multilateral strategy and were particularly adamant about the need to confront the threat on a global scale as quickly as possible. They deemed it important to demonstrate U.S. resolve by striking at the al-Qaida network not only in Afghanistan but wherever it existed. There was much discussion about possible campaigns in Somalia and even more discussion about Yemen.
Yemenis made up a large contingent of al-Qaida’s fighters in Afghanistan, and experts believed terrorists fleeing Afghanistan might find safe haven in Yemen, a weak state not known for exerting central authority over rural areas. What’s more, U.S. strategists knew Osama bin Laden was actually a Yemeni, not a Saudi, by heritage. Certainly, any strategy aimed at defeating al-Qaida had to address the situation in Yemen. But while the Yemeni government was friendly toward the United States, its domestic political position was tenuous at best. Overt cooperation with the United States against locally popular mujahedin fighters would be quite problematic, so permitting covert U.S. operations was a more attractive option.
In early November 2002, the United States conducted a covert airstrike deep inside Yemen. A Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles destroyed a car as it rumbled along an isolated dusty road. The target was Qaed Senyan al-Harithi (aka Abu Ali), al-Qaida’s operational commander for Yemen. Killed along with him were five lesser al-Qaida operatives, all of whom had been hiding under the protection of sympathetic tribesmen in the rugged mountain region bordering Saudi Arabia to the north. The operation had been approved by the Yemeni government with the stipulation that there would be no mention of U.S. involvement in the strike. The press was informed that the terrorists were killed when their car, loaded with highly flammable propane gas, unexpectedly exploded.
From an operational standpoint the strike was a tremendous success. The terrorists were dead, and Yemeni sovereignty was not unduly undermined. It would have become the model for future U.S. operations inside Yemen if Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz had not exposed America’s role in the strike.
“At the Pentagon on Tuesday,” USA Today reported Nov. 5, 2002, “Wolfowitz appeared to confirm that the attack was a U.S. operation. In an interview with CNN, he called it ‘a very successful tactical operation’ and said such strikes are useful not only in killing terrorists but in forcing al-Qaeda to change its tactics.”
Wolfowitz’s indiscretion was not well received by the intelligence community, and for good reason. Questions regarding the delicate issues of Yemeni national sovereignty and the moral justification for “targeted assassination” would have been best diverted by maintaining “plausible deniability.” The State Department was displeased as well. And not least, there was the matter of the safety of U.S. citizens living in Yemen; the U.S. Embassy had to be closed for a period of time following Wolfowitz’s revelation.
Naturally, the leak created much discontent in Sana, Yemen’s capital, where officials rightfully felt betrayed. “This is why it is so difficult to make deals with the United States. This is why we are reluctant to work closely with them,” Yayha Almutawakel, deputy secretary general of the ruling General People’s Congress, told the Christian Science Monitor at the time. “They don’t consider the internal consequences in Yemen. In security matters you don’t want to alert the enemy.”
The Yemeni debacle was followed by a succession of Bush administration actions that, taken as a whole, have greatly undermined the credibility — and effectiveness — of U.S. intelligence services. Most significantly, the invasion of Iraq was justified on the basis of its alleged covert WMD program and the alleged relationship between al-Qaida and Iraq, neither of which turned out to exist. Yet of all the damaging incidents, the most recent example involving Khan is perhaps the most egregious in undermining the struggle against al-Qaida.
As a source with an understanding of al-Qaida’s communications network and access to many of its key players, Khan was exactly the type of “weapon” we need to win the war against terrorism. Unfortunately, someone in the White House chain of command thought it was more important to win the latest poll. As a result, Khan is hiding in protective custody while bin Laden remains free.
Why do actions that significantly damage the integrity and viability of U.S. intelligence operations keep occurring? If simple incompetence is the cause, the lack of public accountability for the offending parties strains credulity.
The answer lies in understanding the offenders’ view of the importance and role of intelligence in the crafting of policy. If they adhered to the traditionalist view that holds that the purpose of intelligence is to inform policy accurately and without bias, they would more jealously guard the viability of intelligence operations, sources, and methods, and the independence and accuracy of intelligence analysis. The facts suggest, however, that these offenders believe the purpose of intelligence is to attain certain political goals, whether domestic or foreign. And sadly, the damage their machinations have caused to the goal of defeating al-Qaida will be measured in the loss of the young American servicemen and women who carry the burden of their failed policies.