WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government-ordered closure of 19 U.S. diplomatic facilities in August has prompted a new controversy, this one about whether news reports at the time alerted al Qaida leaders that their communications were being monitored.
Obama administration officials, speaking anonymously to The New York Times, are claiming that those reports, especially one by McClatchy, caused, in the Times’ words, “more immediate damage to American counterterrorism efforts than the thousands of classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.”
That claim was disputed by McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief James Asher, who defended McClatchy’s story, and by other analysts of Yemen events, one of whom called the Obama officials’ assertion “laughable.”
At issue in the McClatchy report is the naming of the two al Qaida figures whose messages had been intercepted, Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaida, and Nasser al Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. McClatchy, citing Yemeni officials, said the intercepted communication caught Zawahiri ordering Wuhayshi to launch an unspecified attack.
Ever since that report, The Times article said, terrorists had stopped using “a major communications channel” that U.S. officials had been monitoring and that intelligence officials “have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaida’s leaders and operatives.”
Asher, in a statement, said that in the nearly two months since McClatchy had published its story, no U.S. agency has contacted the newspaper chain about the article or has asked any questions about its sources.
Additionally, Asher cast doubt on whether McClatchy’s report was a revelation in Yemen, which was the focal point of the U.S. concerns. After the other diplomatic posts reopened, the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, remained closed.
“While I don’t want to say anything that could compromise our sources, I will tell you that our information was widely known in Yemen,” Asher said in a statement that was distributed to the Huffington Post. “Multiple sources inside and outside of the Yemeni government confirmed our reporting and not one of them told us not to publish the facts.”
That claim was backed Monday by Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert and the author of “The Last Refuge,” a book on al Qaida in Yemen. Johnsen said that he’d been told before the McClatchy report that Zawahiri and Wuhayshi were the two men who’d been intercepted and that many people in Yemen knew the details of the communication. Johnsen had made a similar statement to McClatchy in early August.
“The idea that the identities of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri are responsible for the difficulties the U.S. is having in tracking al Qaida and AQAP is laughable,” Johnsen said Monday, referring to the Yemen al Qaida affiliate by its initials. “The U.S. publicly closed 19 embassies, the participation of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri was well known in Yemen. I was told about it prior to McClatchy publishing it. And once the leaks start from the U.S. government they can be hard to stop or to control.”
It was unclear whether the Obama administration is investigating the source of leaks about the communications intercept . The FBI declined to comment, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond to a request for comment. The Times, which did not contact McClatchy for comment, said that it would have nothing to say.