Why did someone in the Bush administration leak the name of suspected al-Qaida member Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan to the press? In the weeks between his July 13 arrest and the Department of Homeland Security's Aug. 1 decision to raise the terrorist warning alert to orange, Khan had been convinced to engage his former colleagues in an encoded e-mail correspondence. In other words, he had been turned. When the New York Times first revealed his identity, and the White House later confirmed it, the administration sacrificed what one intelligence expert called a "holy grail."
"[The leak] goes against all the rules of counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, running agents and so forth," the intelligence source explained to Reuters. "The whole thing smacks of either incompetence or worse."
However, two days later, another Reuters article allowed that maybe the leak wasn't the tremendous screw-up the wire service had previously reported. "Terrorism experts," the piece noted, "said the reasons for the release of Khan's name could range from a judgment error to a sophisticated ploy designed to put al Qaeda on edge about the extent to which the network has been infiltrated by moles."
George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor, a private global intelligence company, learned that it was the latter. "There was a decision in the U.S. intelligence community to roll up the al-Qaida networks we know about now and push them out of a pre-election attack," he told me.
That is to say, the most important information that came from Khan was not about the five potential financial-sector targets in New York, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C., that al-Qaida had chosen as far back as four years ago to attack. What U.S. intelligence learned is that there was an extremely serious, imminent operation in the advanced-planning stages. The information placed in the Times, Friedman explains, "was part of a systematic series of leaks, designed to confuse al-Qaida. They don't know what we know and what we don't know. Since their operational principle is never attack into a highly secure environment, the assumption is that they'd abort this operation."
I asked Friedman, author of the forthcoming book America's Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies, why other intelligence professionals were skeptical of the government's actions. For instance, CIA officer Robert Baer argued, "You get no benefit from announcing an arrest like this."
Friedman explains that there are two sides to any debate in the intelligence community: intelligence and security. "The gut of an intel guy like Baer is that you never shut down an operation by going public," says Friedman. "The security people have a narrower point of view: The best way to make al-Qaida go on tilt is to reveal that they have been penetrated. In this particular case, I see the need to let al-Qaida know that we know something. Otherwise, they will continue their operation, thinking they are secure. Maybe we sweep the board before the operation is executed, and maybe we get hit hard. Better to force them to abort their operation even if we lose intelligence opportunities. I see Baer's point of view, but in this case, I'm with the security guys."
So, even if it's not a home run for U.S. spooks, their efforts have likely made Americans safer now than they were a month ago. It also suggests that capturing an al-Qaida member and turning him isn't as impossible as we once imagined. Remember that the former director of the CIA argued it would take five years to build a clandestine service capable of penetrating the jihadist movement. In fact, it was accomplished, with Pakistani intelligence, within a month of George Tenet's departure.
However, the fact that so many press outlets were quick to assume the leak was yet another government blunder indicates that, unlike U.S. intelligence, our media is not learning from its mistakes.
In the almost three years since Sept. 11, the White House and U.S. intelligence have come under heavy fire for their errors, while the press has mostly been criticized for not being hard enough on either of them. Certainly, there's a time for the U.S. press to play the adversary—to challenge Washington and itemize its errors—but that's not its only role. The media can also choose to explain the government's actions rather than reflexively criticize—or cheer—them. But in order to explain, we have to assume that the White House is essentially a rational actor that can neither afford to lie out of habit nor to ignore its mistakes because it is too incompetent to correct them; rather, we need to recognize that there are circumstances under which a government is likely to deceive and err. Obviously, war is the No. 1 condition for both.