Leakers of secrets who won’t be punished

[Update 9/24/13.  The “leak” may have been disinformation.  No such conference call seems to have taken place.  Either the information came from other sources or it was bogus.]

Somebody leaked to The Daily Beast, an on-line newspaper, that the reason the U.S. State Department is closing embassies throughout the Middle East is information revealed in a conference call between Ayman al-Zawahiri, the top leader of al Qaeda, and more than 20 al Qaeda affiliates.

Al Zawahiri thought his communications were secure, but, because of the information leak, he now knows they aren’t.  If that information hadn’t been leaked, maybe it would have been possible use to continue eavesdropping and figure out the locations of al Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders.

Why then was the information leaked?  My guess is that the leakers’ purpose was to silence critics of the Obama administration who claim that the closing of the embassies was intended as a distraction from the controversy over Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance program.

Unlike Snowden and others who leak information embarrassing to the government, these leakers will not be tracked down and punished, any more than earlier leakers who have revealed information about successful intelligence operations against al Qaeda.

The U.S. government has always been concerned about the leaking of information to the public that makes the government look bad, even when the information happens to be well-known to America’s enemies.  Since 2001, it has seldom if ever been concerned about leaking of information that may be helpful to America’s enemies but makes the government took good.

These leaks make me skeptical of the claim that the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping has thwarted plots that the agency can’t reveal because of national security considerations.  If there were successes, the information would be made known.  The pattern I see is that public relations trumps national security.

Click on Al Qaeda Conference Call Intercepted by U.S. Officials Sparked Alerts for the complete article by Eli Lake and Josh Rogin in The Daily Beast last week.  Highlights:

Several news outlets reported Monday [August 5] on an intercepted communication last week between Zawahiri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda’s affiliate based in Yemen. But The Daily Beast has learned that the discussion between the two al Qaeda leaders happened in a conference call that included the leaders or representatives of the top leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates calling in from different locations, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence. All told, said one U.S. intelligence official, more than 20 al Qaeda operatives were on the call. […]

Al Qaeda members included representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official. […].

Al Qaeda leaders had assumed the conference calls, which give Zawahiri the ability to manage his organization from a remote location, were secure. But leaks about the original intercepts have likely exposed the operation that allowed the U.S. intelligence community to listen in on the al Qaeda board meetings

As the last paragraph shows, even the writers of the Daily Beast article had misgivings about revealing the operation.  Why then was the article published?  My guess is that the Daily Beast’s editors knew that if they didn’t publish the information, the leakers would find a competitor who would.

I am surprised that after all these years any al Qaeda leader would regard any form of electronic communication as secure.  Could it be that they were playing mind games with U.S. intelligence agencies?  Could they have been trying to panic the U.S. government into over-reacting and seeming like fools?  It’s possible.


For more about secrecy and surveillance, click on Maybe the real state secret is that spies are not very good at their jobs and don’t know much about the world by Adam Curtis of the BBC.  This history of blunders by Britain’s MI-5 does raise a question of how to set standards of competence for an organization that operates in secret and isn’t accountable to anyone outside.  Certainly leaks that reveal blunders and leak that reveal successes are treated very differently.

Click on Is the Fourth Amendment now illegal? by Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution.  He argues that the closing down of the Lavabit secure e-mail service indicates that the U.S. government now forbids encryption of e-mail in order to protect it from electronic eavesdroppers.  But it is hard to be sure because whatever the government did to cause Lavabit to shut down is a state secret.

Click on How the Government Killed a Secure E-Mail Company by Michael Phillips for The New Yorker for more about the closing of Lavabit.  Among other things, Phillips reveals that the secret FISA intelligence court has the power to issue secret criminal contempt orders to those who disobey it and impose secret fines and jail sentences.

Click on The Surveillance Reforms Obama Supported Before He Was President by Kara Randeisky of the Pacific Standard.  Senator Barack Obama’s proposals would go a long way to curb the abuses that have taken place under President Obama.

Click on DEA directs agents to cover up program used to investigate Americans by John Shiffman and Kristina Cooke of Yahoo News and How the DEA program differs from other NSA revelations by Reuters for information and comment on how the National Security Agency shares secret surveillance information with the Drug Enforcement Administration and its inter-agency task force.

Click on The NSA is turning the Internet into a total surveillance system by Alexander Abdo and Patrick Tooney of The Guardian.

Tags: , , , , , ,

One Response to “Leakers of secrets who won’t be punished”

  1. … Can ‘ t You All Shut Up [Sensitive Intelligence & Military Info] … « Lake Erie Conservative Says:

    […] Leakers of secrets who won’t be punished (philebersole.wordpress.com) […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: