- One of the greatest coups in Washington's nearly
three-year war against al-Qaeda has suddenly turned sour
with reports that the White House prematurely exposed
the identity of a key source whose contacts and
communication with the terrorist group's operational
masterminds had yet to be fully exploited.
compound the United States' embarrassment, Pakistan has angrily
protested to Washington over a Federal Bureau of
Investigation (FBI) sting operation involving a fake
plot to kill Pakistan's ambassador to the United
Nations, describing it as "a bizarre mission".
Islamabad was responding to claims that a US
secret agent posed as a terrorist seeking to buy
missiles to kill Munir Akram, Pakistan's UN envoy, in a
bid to catch potential money launderers. The operation
resulted in the arrest of two leaders of a New York
state mosque, Mohammed M Hossain and Imam Yassin M Aref.
The two face charges that they conspired with a man who
claimed to have ties to Islamic terrorists in laundering
US$50,000 in payments for a foreign missile that he
But Pakistan is not impressed, and
questions why Washington would endanger the life of a
Pakistani ambassador, given the close ties between the
two nations. "It is mind-boggling why they could not use
the name of an American functionary," Pakistan spokesman
Masood Khan told the media.
comes amid a high-profile crackdown on suspected top
al-Qaeda operatives hiding in Pakistan. But in exposing
the identity of its al-Qaeda source, Washington has shot
itself in the foot.
The source, 25-year-old
computer wizard Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, had been
cooperating with Pakistani police and the US Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) since he was quietly detained
in Lahore on July 12, until the New York Times published
his name last Tuesday after receiving a "background"
briefing by the White House.
administration, which had elevated the terror-warning
level in three US states on the basis of information
acquired from Khan, set up the briefing to dispel public
skepticism about the terrorism threat, particularly
after it was disclosed that much of the information on
which it was based was several years old.
British and Pakistani intelligence agencies were
reportedly furious with the leak, which forced United
Kingdom police to hurriedly round up 13 al-Qaeda
suspects who are alleged to have been in email
communication with Khan. Five others who were sought by
MI5 (UK security service) reportedly escaped capture,
and there is some question that the British had gathered
enough evidence to persuade a judge to keep the 13
detainees in custody, according to published reports.
"The outing of Khan, probably the most important
asset the US has ever had inside al-Qaeda, is a huge
disaster and a setback to attempts to finish off the top
leadership of al-Qaeda," said Juan Cole, a Middle East
specialist at the University of Michigan, whose Web log
(or "blog") Informed Comment, is widely read in
Two of those arrested by the
British, Abu Issa al Hindi and Babar Ahmed, however, are
wanted by the US. Ahmed reportedly obtained detailed
information about the movements of a US Navy aircraft
carrier, the Constellation, in 2001, six months after
the al-Qaeda suicide attack on the USS Cole off Yemen.
Hindi was reportedly sent to the US at around
the same time to carry out surveillance on key US-based
financial institutions in New York, Newark, in
neighboring New Jersey, and Washington DC, which were
named as likely possible targets when the terror alert
was elevated eight days ago.
Those tidbits are
among what US officials have called a "treasure trove"
of information found on computers owned by Khan, who
apparently agreed to continue sending and receiving
encrypted messages to his al-Qaeda contacts after his
arrest in order to help catch other operatives.
Investigators reportedly found that one of the
files on Hindi's computer had been opened as recently as
January, suggesting that an attack on one or more of the
financial targets - which included the World Bank and
the International Monetary Fund in Washington - may have
been in an operational phase, justifying a heightened
It was the skepticism that greeted the
alert, particularly after other leaks confirmed the
underlying evidence was at least three years old, that
spurred the White House to provide more information to
reporters, including Khan's name.
George W Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza
Rice, confirmed on Sunday that briefing officials had
given Khan's name to the Times, but insisted he was
identified "on background", an assertion that caused
consternation among experienced journalists here, who
know that everything said by officials "on background"
can be quoted so long as the name of the briefing
official is not disclosed.
"The problem," she
told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "is that when you're trying to
strike a balance between giving enough information to
the public so that they know that you're dealing with a
specific, credible, different kind of threat than you've
dealt with in the past, you're always weighing that
against ... operational considerations. We think for the
most part, we've struck a balance, but it's indeed a
very difficult balance to strike."
Home Secretary David Blunkett suggested the balance had
been anything but well struck. In an opinion piece
published Sunday, he was openly contemptuous of the
White House's management of the information. "In the
United States there is often high-profile commentary
followed, as in the current case, by detailed scrutiny,
with the potential risk of ridicule," Blunkett wrote in
"Is it really the job of a senior
cabinet minister in charge of counter-terrorism to feed
the media? To increase concern? Of course not. This is
arrant nonsense," he said.
who have been under enormous pressure from Washington,
also expressed frustration. "This is a network that we
are trying to break," said Interior Minister Faisal
Saleh Hayyat, who denied the information had been leaked
from Pakistan. "It is in the process of being
dismantled, [but] the network is still not finished."
Even staunchly loyal Republicans said the White
House had made a serious mistake. "In this situation, in
my view, they should have kept their mouth shut and just
said, 'We have information, trust us'," said Virginia
Senator George Allen.
Some observers charged
that the public skepticism surrounding the
administration's conduct in the "war against terrorism"
had been largely induced by the government itself.
According to one recent poll, nearly 40% of the public
believes the White House is manipulating the threat
level for political reasons, a notion that gained more
support when the Department of Homeland Security raised
the threat level to "orange" or "high" on the morning
after Bush's Democratic foe, John Kerry, accepted the
presidential nomination, concluding a four-day party
Similarly, the administration
announced the arrest in Pakistan of a senior al-Qaeda
operative, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, wanted for organizing
the 1998 suicide bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi
and Dar es Salaam, on the third day of the Democratic
convention, and three weeks after the The New Republic
weekly quoted Pakistani intelligence officials as saying
the White House had asked them to announce the arrest or
killing of any "high-value [al-Qaeda] target" any time
between July 26 and 28, the first three days of the
At the time, former CIA
officer Robert Baer said the announcement made "no
sense". "To keep these guys off-balance, a lot of this
stuff should be kept in secret. You get no benefit from
announcing an arrest like this."
the only deep mole we've ever had within al-Qaeda, it
ruined the chance to capture dozens if not hundreds
more," a former Justice Department prosecutor, John
Loftus, told Fox News on Saturday.