David Johnston of the New York Times tried to get further details of the Bush administration outing of Pakistani double agent Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan. But he was stonewalled when he called his Bush administration contacts:
“American officials contacted on Saturday would not confirm that Mr. Khan was a mole or double agent and said that his arrest had led to intelligence gains of enormous value in uncovering the surveillance operation in the United States.”
This response is unresponsive. We already knew that Khan’s arrest had led to a gold mine of evidence about al-Qaeda. And, we don’t need Washington to tell us whether Khan was a double agent for Pakistani intelligence. It turns out that both the United Kingdom and Pakistan are extremely angry with Bush for going public with the details gleaned from the computers of Khan and Ghailani. In an article for the Observer, British Home Secretary David Blunkett lashed out at the Bush White House over last Sunday’s announcement by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge of an old al-Qaeda plot against financial institutions in New York and Washington. Blunkett writes,
. . . over the last four days there has been column inch after column inch devoted to the fact that in the United States there is often high-profile commentary followed, as in the most current case, by detailed scrutiny, with the potential risk of inviting ridicule . . . it is important to be able to distinguish if there is a meaningful contribution that helps to secure us from terrorism. And to understand if there isn’t. And there are very good reasons why we shouldn’t reveal certain information to the public. Firstly, we do not want to undermine in any way our sources of information, or share information which could place investigations in jeopardy. Second, we do not want to do or say anything which would prejudice any trial.
Blunkett’s measured tones barely disguise his fury at the Bush administration for having gone public with details that have endangered an ongoing British investigation and forced the premature arrest of twelve suspects, against whom it is not clear a case can be made at this point. Blunkett was also clearly dismayed by the controversy that broke out in the US when it was learned that the surveillance of the financial institutions was several years old. Although the Bush administration maintains that the file had been “updated” as late as January 2004, The Guardian says that all this means was that the file was opened in that month. No new information appears to have been entered; this was a sort of browsing. Johnston notes,
‘Officials at MI5, the British domestic intelligence agency, have warned that the intense news media coverage in the United States of recent arrests in Britain could interfere with legal efforts to extradite suspects to the United States.’
This mention of extradition appears to refer to Eisa al-Hindi, a cousin of Muhammad Naeem Nur Khan, whom the British had under surveillance but were forced to take into custody prematurely, and against whom MI5 appears to be worried they cannot make a convincing court case of a sort that would allow his extradition to the US. The Guardian‘s Gaby Hinsliff and Martin Bright note, “there has also been dismay in Whitehall at the willingness of American sources to comment openly on the British cases, amid concerns that the extradition to the US of one of those arrested could be jeopardised. “They further explain that some of the resistance in Britain to Bush-style grandstanding is rooted in fear of demagoguery (not a phenomenon that unduly troubles the Bush wing of the Republican Party). They write,
Last night, Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, rose to Blunkett’s defence, warning of a ‘Faustian bargain’ between the media and politicians over terrorism. ‘I am acutely aware that there is a Faustian bargain on offer for those who want it: airtime, in exchange for ratcheting the fear factor one notch higher,’ he told The Observer.Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, was also annoyed, according to Dawn:
Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat, in an interview on Friday, drew a veil over Khan’s contribution to the breakthroughs against Al Qaeda. “This is a very sensitive subject. We must be very careful, we must exercise extreme caution in coming out with such names and such information,” the minister said.
Hayat is a from a family of Shiite Sufi leaders in the northern Punjab province of Jhang Siyal, and has even more reason to want to fight al-Qaeda than most Pakistani officials. Sunni radicals in Pakistan have targeted Shiites for assassination, and many acts of violence against Shiites have been perpetrated by al-Qaeda ally Sipah-i Sahabah (Army of the Companions of the Prophet) in Jhang Siyal itself. He can only have watched with horror as the Bush administration outed Khan and put an end to his cooperation in giving al-Qaeda cell members enough rope to hang themselves via email communications. There is some evidence that Hayat is also annoyed at other Pakistani government officials like Information Minister Rashid Ahmad, who were willing to confirm the American announcement of Khan’s identity.