The U.S. government-ordered closure of 19 U.S. diplomatic facilities in August has prompted a new controversy, this one about whether news reports at the time alerted al Qaida leaders that their communications were being monitored.
Obama administration officials, speaking anonymously to The New York Times, are claiming that those reports, especially one by McClatchy, revealed sensitive information that caused, in the Times’ words, “more immediate damage to American counterterrorism efforts than the thousands of classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.”
McClatchy’s original story was based on reports that were circulating widely in Yemen at the time. The details of the al Qaida monitoring had spread to social gatherings and officials both in and outside of the Yemeni government.
McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief James Asher said: “We believe that if the Yemenis knew that the United States had intercepted conversations between two al Qaida honchos, Americans should as well.”
At issue in the McClatchy report is the naming of the two al Qaida figures whose messages had been intercepted, Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaida, and Nasser al Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. McClatchy, citing Yemeni officials, said the intercepted communication caught Zawahiri ordering Wuhayshi to launch an unspecified attack.
Ever since that report, The Times article said, terrorists had stopped using “a major communications channel” that U.S. officials had been monitoring and that intelligence officials “have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaida’s leaders and operatives.”
Asher, in a statement, said that in the nearly two months since McClatchy had published its story, no U.S. agency has contacted the newspaper company about the article or has asked any questions about the origins of the story.
“Multiple sources inside and outside of the Yemeni government confirmed our reporting and not one of them told us not to publish the facts,” Asher said.
Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert and the author of “The Last Refuge,” a book on al Qaida in Yemen, backed Asher's assessment, saying that he had been told before the McClatchy report that Zawahiri and Wuhayshi were the two men who’d been monitored and that many people in Yemen knew the details of the communication. Johnsen had made a similar statement to McClatchy in early August.
“The idea that the identities of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri are responsible for the difficulties the U.S. is having in tracking al Qaida and AQAP is laughable,” Johnsen said Monday, referring to the Yemen al Qaida affiliate by its initials. “The U.S. publicly closed 19 embassies, the participation of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri was well known in Yemen. I was told about it prior to McClatchy publishing it. And once the leaks start from the U.S. government they can be hard to stop or to control.”
It was unclear whether the Obama administration is investigating the source of leaks about the communications intercept. The FBI declined to comment, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond to a request for comment. The Times, which did not contact McClatchy for comment, said that it would have nothing to say.
Such an investigation, however, could raise uncomfortable questions about who outside the U.S. government was briefed about the intercepted communications and whether those briefings violated U.S. law. At a minimum, it would raise issues about whether U.S. officials exercised due caution in sharing the information.
Last week, a former FBI agent agreed to plead guilty to leaking classified information about a foiled bomb plot in Yemen to the Associated Press. The prosecutor in that case, Ronald C. Machen, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, said the guilty plea by Donald Sachtleben, “demonstrates our deep resolve to hold accountable anyone who would violate their solemn duty to protect our nation’s secrets.”
At the time of the embassy closures, Yemen President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was visiting Washington, where he met with a variety of U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama. Hadi was briefed about the U.S. intercepts, he later said in a speech in front of police cadets broadcast on Yemeni state television in late August.
Also briefed on the details of the intercept was The New York Times, which reported on Aug. 2 that the embassy closures were the result of a communications intercept among what the newspaper called “senior operatives of Al Qaida.”
The day after McClatchy reported the communication between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi, the Times published the same information, saying it had been asked by U.S. officials to withhold it.
Johnsen and other observers of Yemen said they doubted that the reports had anything to do with a drop-off in terrorists “chatter.” They said the decline in al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s use of electronic communication pre-dated the August embassy plot, with some tying it to increased pressure on the group--including a sustained uptick in the frequency of drone strikes on Al Qaida targets dating back to the end of 2011. The embassy alerts also prompted an unprecedented series of drone strikes.
Yemeni journalists also have noticed that once-regular email statements from the group have dried up since mid-2012 and attributed the silence to a Yemeni military offensive against AQAP-affiliated militants in the southern Abyan province.
“The loss of Abyan has certainly had an effect, particularly in disrupting external communications,” said Abdulrazzaq al Jamal, a Yemeni journalist who specializes on al Qaida-related issues.
Update: After this article was published, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote about the paper's "questionable story." “We certainly didn’t intend it to blame McClatchy in any way,” Washington editor William B. Hamilton told her. Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson disagreed with Sullivan, saying bluntly at a weekend event, "I think she was wrong."