August 6, 2013 | Politico
Put a Sock in It!
Once again, the system is blinking red.
U.S. officials are warning, through strategic leaks to the press, that Al Qaeda — remember those guys? — has threatened to do … well, we don’t know exactly what. But the threat is apparently severe enough that diplomatic posts have been closed in 19 countries, and even the mighty U.S. military has just evacuated nearly all of its personnel from Yemen, home to the terrorist group’s most fearsome branch.
One thing we do know: The United States has penetrated Al Qaeda leaders’ communications. The volume with which officials have trumpeted this fact is almost certainly a mistake — one that could have real costs in American lives.
The reporting could not be clearer about the source of the information that prompted the U.S.’s defensive measures. The Associated Press, quoting two unnamed officials, reported Monday that the plot was uncovered based on “an intercepted secret message between Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and his deputy in Yemen.” Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger similarly remarked on ABC’s “This Week” that a message from “high-level people in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” about a “major attack” had been intercepted. Further underscoring the penetration of Al Qaeda’s communications, the U.S. media reported — before Al Qaeda announced it — that the leader of the jihadist group’s Yemeni branch had been promoted to the organization’s general manager.
What’s with all the leaks?
There is no reason to divulge that Al Qaeda’s communications have been penetrated. Gaining access to its inner discussions is no easy task: This organization is aware of America’s awesome surveillance capabilities and has for more than a dozen years adapted its communications to minimize the U.S. government’s chances of intercepting them. Al Qaeda is so secretive that there have been periods of years during which U.S. intelligence lacked the information it needed to have basic insights into the group’s inner workings.
But now officials, both unnamed and named, are busily telling the media exactly what messages from Al Qaeda give rise to concerns about the present plot. Based on newspaper accounts alone, neither Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as Al Qaeda’s emir, nor Nasir al-Wuyashi (reportedly the new general manager) will have any doubt about which messages have been intercepted — and thus they will have no doubt about which channels of communication have been compromised. And they will adapt.
The timing of these disclosures is all wrong, tactically and strategically. Officials are explaining how we know what Al Qaeda is planning before the current plot has been disrupted, and before any members of the attack team (or teams) have been apprehended. Since it’s clear from the number of diplomatic posts that have been closed that U.S. intelligence doesn’t know where the attackers are, Al Qaeda has the option of telling the plotters to stand down, after which more secure means of communication can be established. And they can try again.
And these foolish leaks come just as Al Qaeda seems to be regrouping. Recent large-scale jail breaks are going to, without question, bolster jihadist capabilities. Announcing how the United States has compromised Al Qaeda communications when in the midst of a growing threat is unbelievably irresponsible.
It is worth recalling that, as the 9/11 Commission Report details, press reporting back in the 1990s about Osama bin Laden’s means of communication caused him to change those methods, and thus “made it much more difficult for the National Security Agency to intercept his conversations.” There is no reason to think that the same thing won’t happen here.
Some observers have suggested that the embassies threat itself is a politicized “wag the dog” type of scenario designed to bolster the NSA’s image during a time of controversy. That view is dubious, as allied countries who examined the underlying intelligence also decided to shut diplomatic posts.
But the loud revelations that the United States has penetrated Al Qaeda’s communications represent a more plausible, and less remarked upon, form of politicization. These revelations are most likely related to the controversy over NSA’s surveillance, designed to showcase the agency’s continuing value in countering terrorism. And another political backdrop may be the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, with officials absorbing lessons about the potential for backlash if they don’t divulge pertinent information at times like this.
The politicization prompting these disclosures could have very real costs.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is also the author or volume editor of 12 books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy.