Good Leaks and Bad Leaks in Washington

An extraordinary flurry of reports erupted last week over intercepted secret messages between the Pakistani al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and his deputy in Yemen about plans for a major terror attack.

The information triggered the shutdown of 19 US embassies across the world. But hidden between the lines of stories by virtually all of the US's top news media was the question of how the story got out, and who was authorized to leak to whom -- with apparent impunity.

For instance, the McClatchy News Service broke the story, quoting "an official who had been briefed" on the matter in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, saying the embassy closings and travel advisory were the result of an intercepted communication between Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri in which Zawahiri gave "clear orders" to al-Wuhaysi, who was recently named al Qaida's general manager, to carry out an attack.

Eric Schmitt of the New York Times reported on Aug. 3 that the United States had intercepted electronic communications this week among senior operatives of Al Qaeda, in which the terrorists discussed attacks against American interests in the Middle East and North Africa, citing unnamed American officials.

Siobhan Gorman of the Wall Street Journal disclosed the terror report on Aug. 5, writing that it was prompted by intercepted communications between the head of al Qaeda in Pakistan and the chief of the group's affiliate in Yemen, according to unnamed current and former officials familiar with the intelligence reports.

The Associated Press reported on Aug. 6 that two unnamed officials said the trigger that set off the shutdown of the US embassies was the secret interception of the transmission of the messages between the two Al Qaeda groups. Both officials, the AP said, "spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive issue publicly."

This is the same Associated Press that the US Justice Department went after in April and May of 2012 to obtain two months of telephone records of AP reporters and editors in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news.

In all, according to the AP, the government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in an effort to discover who might have disclosed details of a CIA operation in Yemen that stopped an al-Qaida plot in the spring of 2012 to detonate a bomb on an airplane bound for the United States.

If that sounds remarkably like the "unnamed officials" who disclosed the US ability to listen to the secret messages between Ayman Al Zawahri and his colleagues in Yemen to blow up any one of 19 US embassies, it probably should.

But any suggestion that the officials speaking "on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive issue publicly" will be hounded down and jailed as leakers of sensitive classified information on the US ability to monitor terrorists' calls is slim, as the saying goes, or none.

That should demonstrate the hypocrisy afoot in Washington, DC over outrage about who leaks what. Private Bradley Manning (136 years in prison, reduced to 90), Edward Snowden (in exile in Moscow), former CIA officer John Kirakou (30 months in prison), National Security Agency employee Thomas Drake (indicted for leaking information on the agency's surveillance program TrailBlazer) and others might be interested in appealing their cases on the basis of selective prosecution.

This is not new. In July, the New York Times' Mark Landler and Thom Shanker quoted a White House official on the cutback of weaponry to Egypt "who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the diplomatic sensitivities of the decision." On Jan. 28, Reuters reported that a shipment of weapons from Iran to Yemen was intercepted on its way to insurgents, according to two US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. No government sleuths appear to be after either the New York Times or Reuters over these stories.

Sometimes, of course, the government wants to leak itself. Google the words "spoke on the condition of anonymity," and there are enough entries for a book. This is a practice that goes back decades to the Cold War, when the prevailing admiral or general needed to press the urgency for a new aircraft carrier or bomber by frightening the nation with an anonymous assessment of Soviet military capability.

Which leads us to the case of Nasir al-Wuhayshi and Ayman al Zawahiri. The question has to be asked: If the vaunted capability of the National Security Agency is so good that it can intercept the Nasir-Ayman diary entries, why isn't it good enough to actually find them or the people who were going to blow up the embassies? Or should the secret ability be kept quiet, to lure the two into the open? Despite the interception of the communications and the closure of the 19 embassies, it doesn't appear that a single Kalashnikov-clutching, IED vest-wearing terrorist has been caught. We are just left with the warning.

We are also left with a convenient reminder that the National Security Agency's massive electronic spying apparatus can occasionally turn up a nugget or two in the huge volume of gravel, and that the warnings by Edward Snowden and Private Bradley Manning need to be weighed with caution. And finally of course, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee has proposed cutting the State Department and foreign operations budget by more than US$5 billion for the next year. The committee's allocation for fiscal 2013, at US$48.4 billion, would represent a 12 percent cut from the administration's $54.71 billion request for the same accounts. While the House proposes funding for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the remainder of the funding would cut 14 percent out of the administration's request for non-war related diplomatic and development activities.

It would be uncharitable to suggest that the leak of the secret communique between Ayman and Nasir had anything to do with the need to prop up the State Department's budget. But of course the department could use the money. After all, it was Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) who acknowledged in the wake of the Benghazi, Libya attack that took the life of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans, that House Republicans had consciously voted to reduce the funds allocated to the State Department for embassy security after they won the majority in 2010.

It doesn't hurt to play it safe.