As the President of the United States and his reelection campaign invoked the specter of another terrorist attack on American soil implicitly warning against the dangers of switching horses in midstream other members of his administration were undermining the war on terrorism by naming a double agent working inside Al Qaeda to the New York Times and other news outlets.
Never mind who outed Valerie Plame what I want to know is who outed Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan? Because in terms of damage done to U.S. national security, the exposure of the latter is by far the most serious breach. We may, indeed, one day look back on this betrayal as the reason why we didn’t prevent another 9/11.
The baffling and really quite depressing story was reported in a Reuters piece revealing the consequences, if not the source, of the leak:
“U.S. officials providing justification for anti-terrorism alerts revealed details about a Pakistani secret agent, and confirmed his name while he was working under cover in a sting operation, Pakistani sources said on Friday. A Pakistani intelligence source told Reuters Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, who was arrested in Lahore secretly last month, had been actively cooperating with intelligence agents to help catch al Qaeda operatives when his name appeared in U.S. newspapers.”
Khan, dubbed a “computer geek” on account of his technical prowess, functioned as a one-man information hub for Al Qaeda, coordinating and forwarding messages between the top leadership and Bin Laden’s foot-soldiers worldwide. Once captured, Khan “flipped” and agreed to cooperate. CIA interrogators had him sending emails to his former confederates all day Sunday and Monday of last week, and getting back encrypted replies. On Monday morning, however, the Times came out with its story, naming Khan and reporting his disclosures as the real basis of the code orange security alerts issued by Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge. The Times cited both Pakistani and U.S. government officials.
It is hard to know what to make of this. Either these unidentified officials had certain knowledge that Bin Laden’s New York Times subscription had run out, or else someone deliberately sabotaged a top secret anti-terrorist operation while it was in progress.
As is so often the case with this administration, one is faced with the question: is it incompetence, or is it treason?
Looking at U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the abysmal U.S. failure in Afghanistan and Iraq, the anonymous author of Imperial Hubris, a current CIA analyst, bitterly quips:
“I think it is fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.”
He meant it in a metaphorical sense, of course, but the burning of Khan makes one wonder: who and what is working inside the U.S. government, actively undermining the fight against Al Qaeda?
Forced to spring their trap prematurely, British authorities moved quickly to arrest 12 suspects, including at least one top Al Qaeda operative, in daytime raids involving arrests on the street and a high-speed car chase. This was touted as a great victory in the war on terrorism, but was, in reality, a tragic defeat.
With the capture of the “treasure trove” contained in Khan’s computers, and the flipping of Khan, for the first time since we let Al Qaeda get away from Afghanistan, the top terrorists, and even Bin Laden himself, were within our grasp only to slip out on account of what is being characterized as a slip of the tongue.
Reuters cites Kevin Rosser, a security expert with the London-based Control Risks Group, as saying:
“When these public announcements are made they have to be supported with some evidence, and in addition to creating public anxiety and fatigue you can risk revealing sources and methods of sensitive operations.”
We are supposed to believe that administration officials, forced to justify security alerts that had become a political issue, found it necessary to reveal Khan’s name to a curious New York Times reporter. While the Times cited a Pakistani intelligence official as one of the sources for the story, it soon came out that it was administration officials who had spilled the beans, as Juan Cole relates:
“[CNN’s Wolf] Blitzer then revealed that he had discussed the Khan case with U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on background. He reported that she had admitted that the Bush administration had in fact revealed Khan’s name to the press. She said she did not know if Khan was a double agent working for the Pakistani government.”
What a profoundly weird remark, but then Condi has been way over her head ever since they fished her out of the Hoover Institution to front for the neocons on the White House National Security staff.
What I’d like to know, however, is who is working as a double agent inside our own government? Because someone has sure sabotaged the hunt for Bin Laden and his cohorts just as effectively as if they’d been working for the Islamists.
It has been the tendency of the powerful and often dominant neoconservative clique to always downplay the importance of capturing Osama bin Laden and pulverizing his terrorist network once and for all. The neocons worked overtime to divert American efforts away from Al Qaeda, and draw attention to Saddam Hussein. This group moved to the fore immediately after 9/11, when Bush was demanding “evidence” to convict Iraq of the deed, and Paul Wolfowitz was counseling that we ignore Afghanistan, at least for the moment, and take the opportunity to go straight to Baghdad: the Iraq fixation of this White House is detailed in Richard Clarke’s memoir of his days as counter-terrorism czar, and supplemented by Bob Woodward’s account in Plan of Attack.
Woodward further reports Colin Powell’s complaint that the neoconservatives had effected a virtual coup d’etat, setting up “a separate government” that did an end-run around the State Department and the CIA and pushed us into war. Having seized power, however, this separate, or parallel, government, centered around “President” Dick Cheney, would naturally be reluctant to voluntarily give up its dominant position. In this context of internecine conflict, the otherwise inexplicable “outing” of Khan begins to make at least a modicum of twisted sense. Was a U.S. covert operation of vital importance shot down in the crossfire of an ongoing civil war within the Bush administration?
After all, it wouldn’t be the first time. The neocons around the Vice President had no qualms about outing deep cover covert agent Valerie Plame, even though she was engaged in the vital work of tracking down “missing” nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. Their motive was to wreak revenge on her husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, whose visible and quite vocal opposition to the Iraq war the neocons found rankling.
The outing of Khan raises the stakes in a bigger game, however, and, at this point, we don’t know who did it, or why. All we have to go on is the familiar modus operandi, and that’s not enough.
U.S. Attorney Patrick J. “Bulldog” Fitzgerald has been appointed by the Justice Department to handle the Plame case, and his investigation is reportedly coming to some sort of conclusion: which means he may have time to take up a new task, one involving pretty much the same cast of characters and the same sort of crime. In the case of Plame, the Justice Department didn’t get moving until the CIA had filed a formal complaint. What will it take to get them moving, this time another terrorist attack?
Condoleezza Rice’s now famous invocation of the nuclear danger posed by Iraq “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” certainly seems more applicable to the current threat posed by Al Qaeda’s operations in the U.S. This time, there does indeed appear to be an imminent threat, and the question is: what are they doing about it, aside from sabotaging their own investigation?
Who outed Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan? This administration can’t seriously claim to be fighting terrorism effectively until that question is answered.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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