Why Leaks Matter
In the aftermath of the murderous London train bombings, a few of us remembered an incident from 2004. The United States government leaked the name of a high-level Al Qaeda informant named Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan when making a capture of terrorist cells in Pakistan. Khan was providing valuable information to global intelligence operations, and could have continued to do so if the U.S. wasn't so excited to announce high-level Al Qaeda captures in an election year. Khan's name was blown in conjunction with the Homeland Security announcement of a "new" plot (it was 3 years old) to attack US financial centers last August. Here's part of Senator Chuck Schumer's statement on the matter:
Last Sunday, one or more senior American officials leaked details of the capture of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, the 25-year-old Al Qaeda computer engineer, to the news media. Mr. Khan had been providing invaluable information to our allies, because he continued to maintain contact with Al Qaeda operatives even after his capture by our allies.
According to several media reports, British and Pakistani intelligence officials are furious that the Administration unmasked Mr. Khan and named other captured terrorist suspects. Yesterday’s editions of the Daily News in New York reported Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayyat is dismayed that the trap they hoped would lead to the capture of other top Al Qaeda leaders, possibly even Osama Bin Laden, was sprung too soon. "The network is still not finished," Hayyat said. The Daily News also quoted a British security source saying this development "makes our job harder," and Reuters quoted British Home Secretary David Blunkett saying that there is ''a difference between alerting the public to a specific threat and alarming people unnecessarily by passing on information indiscriminately.''
As you know, I believe that openness in government is generally the best policy, but the important exception should be anything that compromises national security. The statements of the British and Pakistani officials indicate that such a compromise may have occurred. In light of this possibility, I respectfully request an explanation to me and any other Member of Congress who might wish one of who leaked this Mr. Khan’s name, for what reason it was leaked, and whether the British and Pakistani reports that this leak compromised future intelligence activity are accurate.
Blowing Khan's cover had particular negative consequences for Britain, who was using the asset to strike down London's Al Qaeda cells.
The announcement of Khan's name forced the British to arrest 12 members of an al-Qaeda cell prematurely, before they had finished gathering the necessary evidence against them via Khan. Apparently they feared that the cell members would scatter as soon as they saw that Khan had been compromised. (They would have known he was a double agent, since they got emails from him Sunday and Monday!) One of the twelve has already had to be released for lack of evidence, a further fall-out of the Bush SNAFU. It would be interesting to know if other cell members managed to flee.
And then a week ago, bombs burst in the Underground. Do you think that Tony Blair would have welcomed being able to finish his investigation on Al Qaeda cells in London before the Bush Administration blew the cover of the best human intelligence asset inside Al Qaeda the world has ever had?
That, my friends, is why leaks matter. That's why you don't go around exposing the names of CIA undercover operatives for political reasons. That's why you don't use classified and sensitive information as payback to cover up lies about uranium shipments to Iraq. That's why Karl Rove doesn't deserve a job in the executive branch of the United States government.