WASHINGTON -- The unauthorized disclosure of a counter-terrorism operation in Yemen last year compromised an exceedingly rare and valuable espionage achievement: an informant who had earned the trust of hardened terrorists, according to U.S. officials.
His information was said to have led to the U.S. drone strike that killed a senior Al Qaeda leader, Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Quso, on May 6, 2012. U.S. officials say Quso had helped direct the terrorist attack on the Cole, a U.S. Navy guided missile destroyer, in a Yemeni harbor in October 2000. The suicide bombing killed 17 U.S. sailors and nearly sank the warship.
The informant, reportedly a British subject of Saudi birth, also had convinced members of Al Qaeda’s feared Yemeni affiliate that he wanted to blow up a U.S. passenger jet. He was trained and outfitted with the latest version of an underwear bomb designed to pass metal detectors and other airport safeguards, officials say.
Even after the informant left Yemen with the explosive device and turned it over to his handlers, U.S. intelligence officials believed they could use him to help disrupt and destroy the terrorist network operating from Yemen, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to three congressional aides briefed on intelligence matters.
They said spy services could make it appear that the underwear bomb had failed and could send their agent back to Yemen to help identify and track Al Qaeda’s top bomb makers and planners.
The Associated Press distributed a wire story on May 7, 2012, that disclosed details of the bombing plot. After that, officials said, the potential for using the informant again was lost.
The AP did not mention the informant in its report. But its story set off a cascade of disclosures, and by the end of the next day, other news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, were reporting on the informant's role.
British intelligence officials, who played a key role in the secret operation, were furious, a British diplomat said. Saudi intelligence officials also were dismayed, U.S. officials said. And U.S. intelligence officials were aghast.
“This was a bad, bad leak,” one official said.
The blown operation received new scrutiny this week after the Justice Department disclosed that it had obtained telephone records for calls to and from more than 20 lines belonging to the AP and its journalists over a two-month period in 2012 as part of a criminal investigation into the alleged leak of highly classified information.
In a break from standard protocol, the federal prosecutor did not give the AP a chance to contest the subpoena in court, citing a policy that allows the government to seize records in secret if it believes disclosure will compromise the investigation.
Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. called the unauthorized disclosure “within the top two or three most serious leaks that I have ever seen.” He added, "It put the American people at risk.”
A former CIA lawyer, who asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly, called that an exaggeration.
“Any time you’ve got a human being involved who was compromised, it’s serious,” he said. “But it certainly wasn’t one of the top two or three that I would have picked. And I never heard of a leak investigation throwing out a dragnet over this many reporters.”
The claim that the leak put Americans at risk rests on the argument that any compromise of an intelligence operation against terrorists theoretically increases the danger that they could harm Americans, he said.
However, the CIA and U.S. special operations forces have made significant gains over the last year against Al Qaeda in Yemen. Missiles launched from drones have killed numerous senior operatives, and U.S. intelligence has helped the pro-American government in Yemen drive Islamist militants from towns they had seized.
But the man who U.S. officials believe designed and built the underwear bombs, Ibrahim Nasiri, remains at large. Finding him would have been a top goal of the operation with the informant.