Saturday, August 07, 2004

If It's Ink or Intel, We'll Take the Ink 

Last week the Bush administration, presumably believing that Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan was more useful for his immediate P.R. value than for his ongoing undercover work with Al Qaeda, blew his cover and ended his usefulness as an intelligence asset. But then the war on terror is just a minor skirmish in a larger, more urgent campaign -- the battle to keep George Bush in office.

Now John B. Judis, Spencer Ackerman & Massoud Ansari -- the three wise men who correctly predicted two weeks in advance that Pakistan would deliver a "high-value target" just in time for the Democratic Convention -- argue that the administration made exactly the same tradeoff in announcing the capture of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani mere hours before John Kerry's acceptance speech on July 29:
[S]ome American and Pakistani intelligence and counterterrorism officials do question the timing of the announcement. After his arrest, Ghailani's Pakistani captors, with assistance from FBI officials, set to work getting him to talk. While they had little initial success, a source privy to the interrogations says, "It might have taken awhile, but he would ultimately have broken down," at which point Ghailani might well have shared information, such as the names of Qaeda associates, that the Pakistanis could have acted on. But, before that could happen, according to an ISI officer, FBI officials, who had initially insisted on keeping the arrest secret, told officials in Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's government that Islamabad should announce Ghailani's capture. An ISI official explains, "When it comes to matters especially pertaining to Al Qaeda, it is always the U.S. administration that takes most of the decisions, while the Pakistani government simply plays the role of a front man." This official and another ISI official believe that the driving factor behind the announcement was U.S. politics. "What else could explain it?" the second official says.

Though there is no policy governing how long to keep such arrests secret, standard intelligence practices dictate that the capture should not have been made public until investigators had finished with Ghailani (and the laptop and computer disks he had been captured with). Indeed, Ghailani may still talk, but some current and former American officials fear that, by broadcasting his name around the world, the Pakistanis have reduced the value of the intelligence that interrogators can extract from him. "Now, anything that he was involved in is being shredded, burned, and thrown in a river," a senior counterterrorism official told the Los Angeles Times. "We have to assume anyone affiliated with this guy is on the run ... when, usually, we can get great stuff as long as we can keep it quiet." Adds former CIA operative Robert Baer: "It makes no sense to make the announcement then. Presumably, everything [Al Qaeda] does is compartmented. By announcing to everybody in the world that we have this guy, and he is talking, you have to assume that you shoot tactics. 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. You always want to get these guys when they are on vacation, when they are not expecting you."
UPDATE (via AmericaBlog): The earlier Reuters report described a massive sweep of London terror suspects hastily arranged by British intelligence just after the revelation of Khan's identity. Washington painted that operation as a major success -- but in today's follow-up story, British officials had a slightly different take:
But British police have acknowledged the raids were carried out in a rush. Suspects were dragged out of shops in daylight and caught in a high speed car chase, instead of the usual procedure of catching them at home in the early morning while they can offer less resistance.

Security experts contacted by Reuters said they were shocked by the revelations that the source whose information led to the alert was identified within days, and that U.S. officials had confirmed his name.

"The whole thing smacks of either incompetence or worse," said Tim Ripley, a security expert who writes for Jane's Defense publications. "You have to ask: what are they doing compromising a deep mole within al Qaeda, when it's so difficult to get these guys in there in the first place?

"It goes against all the rules of counter-espionage, counter-terrorism, running agents and so forth. It's not exactly cloak and dagger undercover work if it's on the front pages every time there's a development, is it?"

A source such as Khan -- cooperating with the authorities while staying in active contact with trusting al Qaeda agents -- would be among the most prized assets imaginable, he said.

"Running agents within a terrorist organization is the Holy Grail of intelligence agencies. And to have it blown is a major setback which negates months and years of work, which may be difficult to recover."

Rolf Tophoven, head of the Institute for Terrorism Research and Security Policy in Essen, Germany, said allowing Khan's name to become public was "very unclever."

"If it is correct, then I would say its another debacle of the American intelligence community. Maybe other serious sources could have been detected or guys could have been captured in the future" if Khan's identity had been protected, he said.

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