An intriguing story floated under the radar in the New York Times last week, relating to the alleged al-Qaeda plot to carry out major attacks in Yemen back in August, which led to the closure of 19 American diplomatic facilities. I describe the plot as alleged because there were a number of inconsistencies in the accounts that emerged in the media, suggesting that there might be more smoke than fire. I observed in an article for TAC that the incident was a net gain for the terrorist group because the U.S. overreaction would have given it valuable insights into how to game the American snoopers, enabling Ayman al-Zawahri to create fake threats that would repeatedly trap Washington into crying wolf and wasting resources. I also noted that al-Qaeda would come out appearing more powerful than it really is, while al-Zawahri might well gain a better understanding of how his telecommunications were being intercepted by the National Security Agency (NSA) and turn to more secure means of staying connected to his various franchises worldwide.
Well, it appears that I may have underestimated the fallout. The Times story, “Qaeda Plot Leak Has Undermined U.S. Intelligence,” describes how the exposure of sensitive sources and methods relating to the Yemen threat has resulted in a general shutdown of the very telecommunications that have been the best source of information on al-Qaeda. It cites a government assessment that indicates that the leak appears to have “caused more immediate damage to American counterterrorism efforts than the thousands of classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden…”
There are a number of points that might be made regarding the Times account. First, it reveals by implication that the United States government, in spite of two decades of trying, has failed to penetrate al-Qaeda using human sources (HUMINT), forcing it to rely almost exclusively on technical collection, referred to as SIGINT. Technical collection has the inherent weakness of rarely revealing long-term intentions or strategic planning, as well as being easily manipulated or even shut off by anyone who suspects its presence and understands how it works.
Second, as no one outside a small circle inside the intelligence community, National Security Council, and White House presumably knows exactly what al-Qaeda communications were compromised, there might be something hidden in the story. The precise nature of the information leaked might have alerted the terrorist group regarding U.S. capabilities that surpass the widely known ability to intercept communications out of the ether. I am specifically referring to electronic penetration of al-Qaeda meeting places and other venues, as well as possible NSA access to hard-wired telecommunications hubs in the Middle East, much like the recently exposed arrangements made with AT&T in San Francisco. The Times article might actually be referring to such a highly sensitive operation when it describes the NSA breaking of “a main communications network.” If those types of penetrations exist, and were exposed, they would be far more difficult and costly to replicate than restoring access to wireless transmissions.
Third, the Times article just might include a deliberate or even inadvertent bit of disinformation. It describes in some detail the cellphone and email encryption systems being used by al-Qaeda and its affiliates, identified as various generations of a self-produced system referred to as Asrar al-Mujahedeen, Mujahedeen Secrets. The article states that the encryption poses “fresh challenges for NSA code breakers” and implies that it provides secure communications for terrorists. I would rather suggest that what can be encrypted can be broken, especially by the NSA with its vast resources. Perhaps the discovery by al-Qaeda that some of its seemingly secure encrypted communications had been intercepted and broken in the Yemen incident is the real story, since it would result in a major rethink in how to communicate, frustrating or even denying American intelligence efforts. The Times article might be intended to reassure al-Qaeda that its crypto system works even if it doesn’t, permitting NSA to continue to read its communications.
Finally, as in the strange case of the dog that didn’t bark in the night, the big story behind yet another apparent intelligence failure is the question that the Times article does not even bother to ask: Who leaked the story and why? The Times apparently had the story from an American source two days before the precise details regarding the intercept broke in the McClatchy chain of newspapers, which obtained the specifics from a Yemeni official and has more recently claimed that it had “multiple sources” in Yemen. Indeed, McClatchy is speculating that the Times story might be an attempt to blame it for the leak of highly sensitive information. But if any of the Yemeni attribution is true it raises yet another question that the White House or someone in the national security hierarchy should be addressing: specifically who would have authorized passing highly sensitive raw intercept information that would compromise sources and methods to the Yemenis, given their demonstrated inability to protect classified intelligence?
The circle in Washington that would have had access to the Yemen intercept information was likely very small and the information itself would have been very tightly held, possibly even distributed in numbered copies that had to be signed in and signed out. At first glance, the leak appears to be something that would most plausibly come deliberately from the White House, already nervous about missteps relating to Benghazi, in an attempt to forestall the inevitable Republican exploitation of the “security failure” that required the embassy and consulate closings. The surmise that the leak was sanctioned is given additional credibility by the fact that there has been no evident hue and cry to identify and prosecute the leaker. Compare, for example, to the reaction to the case of Edward Snowden, where leading politicos and media types were calling for summary execution of the “traitor.” Ironically, one of the specific arguments made against Snowden was that he had revealed NSA capabilities to the terrorists.
As the Times article notes, however, the impact on the flow of terrorist communications post-Snowden was “muted.” So if this exposure of sources and methods relating to Yemen is actually bigger and more damaging than Snowden, where is the outrage from the White House? If the terrorists are turning off their phones because someone in the Obama administration made a major mistake in the handling of classified information, we the public will never know, given the refusal of presidents to hold themselves accountable. But there will be a reckoning for the taxpayer when the NSA requests an additional $10 billion in its next budget to undo the damage done by Edward Snowden and the mystery leaker who either inadvertently or by design told al-Qaeda that the NSA was listening.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.