A plot foiled, but a US agency rift exposed
The news that Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen sought to detonate a sophisticated explosive on a passenger flight is disturbing, though not entirely surprising. It reinforces what we already know: The remnants of Al Qaeda are still trying to kill Americans. US agents stopped this second underwear bomb attack by using an informant who managed to infiltrate Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, volunteer for a suicide mission, and then turn on the terrorists. It was almost perfect counterterrorism. But there was a fatal flaw: Someone in government decided this all made for a fabulous story.
In the fight against Al Qaeda since 9/11, there has never been such a reckless and detailed disclosure of an ongoing covert operation. The stakes are high enough that the Associated Press was willing, after learning of the thwarted attack, to hold the story while events were unfolding. There is much to commend about transparency in counterterrorism efforts, but the level of detail revealed about this mission was jarringly at odds with what's been released about almost every similar undertaking.
What's worse, the story may not have been the result of a deliberate decision by the Obama administration, but rather prompted by leaks from lower-level officials. That would be a symptom of bureaucratic competition for leadership of the next phase of the fight against Al Qaeda.
There is no evidence that this was a purposeful attempt by the administration to take credit for a counterterrorism success. In fact, the administration spent considerable effort trying to downplay the disclosures. What is more likely is that now that "the war on terror" has ended — that sweeping term that was as descriptive as it was exhausting — an internal management battle has begun. The leadership of the new, largely covert fight against terrorism is up for grabs.
The CIA disrupted this latest plot, then got much of the attention. It utilized long-established and very complicated intelligence tactics. Unfortunately, the extent of our infiltration of Al Qaeda has now been exposed. The leaks clearly came from someone intimately involved with the operation; the details are too exacting.
This drama is unfolding amid an ongoing competition between the CIA and the Defense Department over the operational control of counterterrorism efforts, and over the budgets to support them. The CIA, for its part, is hoping to expand its covert drone efforts in Yemen by seeking approval for "signature strikes," the capacity to go after people who are not targeted by name in advance, but exhibit suspicious behavior in some foreign land.
Not to be outdone, the Defense Department established a newly reorganized intelligence entity that would focus on high-priority targets. It is called the Defense Clandestine Service.
Both the CIA's effort to increase bombing targets and the Defense Department's effort to increase intelligence targets came to light in the week before the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death. This bureaucratic wrangling for attention and money reflect the fact that no agency exclusively owns this next phase of counterterrorism. Just as Al Qaeda is dispersed, so are our efforts to combat it.
John Brennan, the president's counterterrorism adviser, acknowledged this rather basic point by not acknowledging anything at all. Brennan launched the bin Laden week with a speech that will be remembered as the first public admission by the administration about the clandestine use of drones. But the text left vague, perhaps purposefully, any mention of operational leadership over this non-war on terror. The CIA and Pentagon are only mentioned specifically in reference to the lawyers — not the spies or soldiers — at both agencies. Brennan simply thanked all the men and women who work to protect this nation's security.
Now, there should be an independent investigation of who, at what agency, was so loose-lipped about a covert mission, and the White House should embrace it. If the leaker was at the CIA, he or she has not only tarnished the agency, but undermined some of the most important tactics that can be used against a flexible enemy.
Turf battles are common, especially in times of transition from one government strategy to another. But rarely do turf battles make someone so easily forget who the real enemy is.
Juliette Kayyem can be reached at email@example.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem