The big picture: Hindering the "war on terror"

By Geraldine Sealey

Published August 9, 2004 4:35PM (EDT)

All the new details of potential al-Qaida attack scenarios -- tourist helicopters turned against New York City, scuba divers and speed boats in New York Harbor, limos gutted and pimped out with explosives, targeting of specific congressional leaders -- are disturbing to know, although no one should have been under any illusion that Osama bin Laden, still at large, and the al-Qaida network in general, had forgotten us. And the administration's new spokeswoman on the terror threat, homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, is claiming victory. "I certainly think that by our actions now that we have disrupted it. The question is, have we disrupted all of it or a part of it? And we're working through an investigation to uncover that," she said on Sunday.

But the immediacy of the threat is still in question. Joe Biden said this morning he thinks the Bush administration may have overstated the immediacy of the threat. "If there was a smoking gun that said we know for certain that was going to occur, I didn't see it." British officials, for the record, were also unconvinced, and British Home Secretary David Blunkett publicly rebuked the Bush administration for the terror alert hype last week: "Is it really the job of a senior cabinet minister in charge of counter-terrorism? To feed the media? To increase concern? Of course not. This is arrant nonsense," Blunkett wrote in The Observer.

But what's more disturbing, perhaps even more than the new details of al-Qaida's twisted plotting, is the Bush administration's outing of an undercover al-Qaida agent in its rush to justify raising the terror alert. This move, whether politically motivated or rooted in incompetence has terrorism and security experts shocked and dismayed for the harm inflicted on intelligence operations against al-Qaida. CNN reports today that the administration "may have shut down an important source of information that has already led to a series of al-Qaida arrests" when officials revealed Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan's identity to journalists last week (Khan is the computer expert who "flipped" last month and was operating as a double-agent for the Pakistani government). Do we have so many plugged-in al-Qaida double agents that we can afford to lose one and with him all of his connections and leads? Of course not.

Juan Cole looks at the consequences: British intelligence agents scrambled last week to arrest 13 members of a London al-Qaida cell before they fled after learning  from the Bush administration!  that Khan had been arrested. "The British do not, however, appear to have finished gathering enough evidence to prosecute the 13 in the courts successfully," Cole writes. And even worse: 5 got away. "If this is true," Cole says. "It is likely that the 5 went underground on hearing that Khan was in custody. That is, the loose lips of the Bush administration enabled them to flee arrest. Of the 13 taken into custody on Aug. 3, two were released for lack of evidence and two others were 'no longer being questioned on suspicion of terrorism offences.'"

"Two of the men let go on Sunday are being charged or questioned with regard to irregularities in their identity papers or lapsed visas. By Tuesday, British police must charge the remaining 9, release them, or ask the magistrate for yet more time for questioning. Terror suspects may be held in the UK for up to two weeks without being charged, in accordance with the Terrorism Act. One of the 9, Abu Eisa al-Hindi, is a high al-Qaeda official also wanted by the US. Because Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan's identity was prematurely released, however, the British may not have enough evidence to extradite him."

As you might expect, British and Pakistani officials are outraged at the administration for outing the al-Qaida mole. And Tim Ripley, a security expert who writes for Jane's Defence publications, says you just have to wonder what in the world they were thinking: "The whole thing smacks of either incompetence or worse  It goes against all the rules of counter-espionage, counter-terror-ism, running agents and so forth. It's not exactly cloak and dagger undercover work if it's on the front pages every time there's a development, is it?"

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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