Tuesday, August 17, 2004

continuing khan

The NYT has a story out today with some additional information on the arrest of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, the suspected Al Qaeda communications expert who possessed the detailed surveillance records that prompted the elevated terror alert two weeks ago.

Of course, the meat of this story is not so much the records, but the fact that Khan's name and his role as "a kind of clearinghouse of Qaeda communications" was published in the NYT on August 2, blowing what had been an international operation to expose other Al Qaeda operatives, using Khan as a mole.

Unfortunately, the NYT story is a bit of a puff piece touting the triumph of international cooperation on terrorism, with some LeCarre-esque action scenes and pats on the back for everyone involved. Only in the final three graphs is the commentary of Britain's home secretary, David Blunkett, mentioned, in which he condemns the hyping of terror alerts.

And the only reference to the leaking of Khan's name was in this graph:

The release of Mr. Khan's name - it was made public in The New York Times on Aug. 2, citing Pakistani intelligence sources - drew criticism by some politicians, like Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who charged that this leak might have compromised the search in Britain and Pakistan for Mr. Khan's Qaeda partners. (No officials in Britain, Pakistan or the United States have told The Times on the record that identifying Mr. Khan had such an impact).
Looking back at the August 2 story, it isn't clear where the leak of Khan's name came from; the story cites both US and Pakistani official sources. However, it does seem like the meat of the information came from a "Pakistani intelligence official".

This Reuters article lays out a bit more detail, as well as providing information on the fallout in England. It looks like descriptive information (such as the suspects role in the organization) provided by the US and the Pakistani official, helped the NYT reporters put 2 and 2 together and come up with a name, which the US then confirmed. This scenario fits with Condoleezza Rice's admission to Wolf Blitzer that the US had released Khan's name "on background":
RICE: Well, I don't know what might have been going on in Pakistan. I will say this, that we did not, of course, publicly disclose his name. One of them...

BLITZER: He was disclosed in Washington on background.

RICE: On background. And the problem 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 kind of operational considerations. We've tried to strike a balance. We think for the most part, we've struck a balance, but it's indeed a very difficult balance to strike.
(According to journalist Josh Marshall, "on background" means that the information is public--as opposed to off the record--but cannot be attributed to a specific individual. Hence the attribution to "a senior US official".)

In any case, in terms of news the Khan story has seemingly been reduced to a triumphant illustration of "the dividends based on the president's counterterrorism policies" (according to Bush's homeland security adviser Fran Townsend).

The question of whether the Khan information was prematurely leaked, and whether a potentially useful sting operation was skunked, has migrated to the opinion columns. Perhaps, like me, everyone was waiting for some intrepid investigative reporter to break the story wide open. Now that two weeks have passed and Sy Hersh seems to be off on other pursuits, we're now reduced to saying "hey--what was up with that, anyway?"

Here are a few relevant columns from the past couple of days:

Washington Post David Ignatius
NY Daily News Richard Schwartz
Center for American Progress Eric Alterman