The Outing of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan

Journalism is often defined as an attempt to "catch history on the run." We historians, when writing history, most often have at hand a range of documents on an issue, and the luxury of being able to weigh them against one another. In trying to track contemporary affairs, the facts are often murky and often only a single source comes forward, who may or may not be reliable.

Here is what we now know. The Pakistani government arrested a 25-year-old computer expert in Lahore on July 13. The arrest was never given to the Pakistani press by the Pakistani government, and no notice appeared in any Pakistani or other newspaper. This absence can only be deliberate, since the Pakistanis could easily have held a press conference to trumpet their new captive. This decision to keep the arrest quiet appears to have been made because Khan had been "flipped," i.e., had become a double agent and continued to have email contact with al-Qaeda members in London, but now with the Pakistani military intelligence listening in.

There was no reason for any reporter anywhere to inquire about Khan, since nothing had come out in Pakistan about his case. Pakistani intelligence was passing on to British intelligence what it was finding out about the London cell. Khan was still communicating with it on Monday Aug. 2.

In addition, Khan’s computer had on it surveillance information about financial institutions in New York and Washington that dated back three years, before the September 11 attacks. The Pakistanis shared this information with both British and American intelligence.

In the week of July 26, the week of the Democratic National Convention, the Bush administration made a decision to announce a heightened security alert for those buildings in Washington, D.C., and New York City. Tom Ridge made the announcement on Sunday, Aug. 1, and there was then a background briefing for reporters.

The Ridge announcement raised the question of where the information on the surveillance of the buildings had come from. Late Sunday afternoon, Aug. 1, the entire national press corps worked the phones furiously, checking with government officials about where Ridge had gotten his tip. The Boston Globe managed to get through to a CIA analyst, who knew the story of Khan’s arrest but refused to give out the specific name.

Earlier on, Reuters had reported, and I had repeated, that the name of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan was given on background to the press by a Bush administration official. The assertion was confirmed by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in an Aug. 8 interview on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, in which she said that U.S. officials gave the name out on background. Both Reuters and Rice appear to have been wrong in this allegation, and I regret having repeated it. The transcript of the briefing, when released, did not contain Khan’s name. However, I am not very embarrassed about being wrong, since Rice misled me. Her office later issued a correction, saying that she had just repeated back to Blitzer his own statement, and had misspoken. This performance by her seems to me bizarre and alarming, but there you have it.

The point remains that had Ridge not made his announcement, the press would have had no occasion to go searching for the source of his information. The Bush administration decision to go public put a powerful spotlight on the Pakistani arrests of June and July.

Amy Waldman and Eric Lipton said on Tuesday Aug. 18 that the New York Times managed to get the name of Khan, as the source for the plot against the financial institutions, from a Pakistani official.

David Rohde had co-reported the story for the Aug. 2 edition of the NYT from Karachi, and if Waldman and Lipton are correct (and presumably as NYT reporters they would be in a position to know the inside story), it seems entirely possible that after Ridge’s press conference, Rohde worked his contacts in the Pakistani government and managed to get the name. The wording of the Aug. 2 article by Douglas Jehl and David Rohde was ambiguous as to where they got the name, sourcing both American and Pakistani officials.

But Pakistan continues to insist that the leak came from the American side, and they also should be in a position to know. I wish Waldman and Lipton had made clear their source for their claim that the leak came from a Pakistani official. If they know this from Jehl and Rohde, then that is strong evidence. If they are just repeating the Bush administration line, then that hardly settles the issue.

Note that the Pakistani government had never before revealed Khan’s name. It had never been mentioned in any Pakistani newspaper or any Pakistani news conference. Since Khan had been turned, he was perhaps the most valuable asset inside al-Qaeda Pakistani intelligence ever had.

Why would this Pakistani official now tell Rohde the name, if that is what happened? We cannot know, of course. It is possible that he believed that Ridge had given the show away anyway. That is, al-Qaeda members on hearing the details Ridge revealed to the American public would know that a real insider had been busted, and would inevitably become so cautious that the Khan sting operation might well have been fatally compromised. We know that after the Ridge announcement, the level of "chatter" among radical Islamists fell off dramatically.

The Bush administration at the very least bears indirect responsibility for the outing of Khan. Without the Ridge announcement, reporters would have had no incentive to seek out the name of the source of the information.

Aristotle thought there were four kinds of causality. The material cause of a baked clay vase is the clay out of which it is made. The formal cause of a baked clay vase is the shape of a vase. The efficient cause of a baked clay vase is the artist who works the clay and then bakes it. The final cause of a baked clay vase is the reason it was made, e.g., to hold water.

Although the efficient cause of the naming of Khan was a Pakistani official speaking to the NYT, I would argue that the final cause of the naming was the Ridge press conference.

The appearance of Khan’s name in the New York Times on Aug. 2 caused the British to have to swoop down on the London al-Qaeda cell to which he was speaking. As it was, five of them heard about Khan’s arrest and immediately fled. The British got 13, but it was early in their investigation and they had to let five go or charge them with minor offenses (such as immigration irregularities). On Tuesday, the British charged eight of them.

When the British made their arrest, the Bush administration announced that among those captured was Abu Eisa al-Hindi, also known as Abu Musa al-Hindi (both are noms de guerre).

The British, especially MI5 and Home Secretary David Blunkett, had not wanted his name made public, and were furious at all of the detailed information being given out to the public by the Bush administration or in consequence of its revelations. For some reason, the British seem to have feared that the naming of Abu Eisa al-Hindi would complicate the case against him. The Times of India reports that Abu Musa (or Abu Eisa) al-Hindi’s real name is Dhiron Barot. He is one of the eight charged in London on Tuesday. He is from a Hindu family, but converted to Islam at age 20 and got pulled into jihadi activities in Kashmir (about which he published a book). He was the one who cased the financial institutions in the U.S. for al-Qaeda. The story of Barot, like that of Richard Reid, shows that al-Qaeda isn’t mainly about Islam per se, it is a political-religious ideology that can attract non-Muslims.

Likewise, Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat was livid that Khan’s name and other details had turned up in the press.

That seems to be where things stand.

I actually did not begin by being critical of the Ridge announcement. I remember being interviewed by a print reporter on Aug. 3 or so, and declining to dismiss the press conference as pure politics. I didn’t say anything negative about it at my weblog at the time. What impelled me to begin following the story and to speak out about it was the Reuters report of Aug. 6, which made the case that the Bush administration had leaked Khan’s name as part of its public relations use of terrorism. That allegation seems to have been incorrect in its specifics.

The Reuters story still does seem to me to hold water, however, at a more general level. After understanding that Ridge set in train the events that led to Khan’s outing, I think it was a huge mistake. It would have been better to keep quiet and use Khan to get more and more of al-Qaeda, maybe even bin Laden himself. I do not know if the Bush administration made the announcement to take the spotlight off the Kerry campaign right after the Democratic National Convention, but Paul Krugman and others have persuasively argued that the Bush administration does time such announcements for political purposes. The British security officials have the better instincts here.