The Associated Press and the administration of United States President Barack Obama are at odds over whether or not the AP’s publishing of a May 2012 article on a foiled al-Qaeda bomb threat put the US in danger.
The AP announced on Monday that the US Department of Justice seized two months’ worth of phone records belonging to journalists, an act the news agency’s CEO condemned as a “massive and unprecedented intrusion.” On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder defended his office’s decision to subpoena the phone history of AP reporters and editors by citing a crucial investigation into an intelligence leak. Now as the debate heats up, the AP insists that they were told by the Central Intelligence Agency that publishing the article wouldn’t put national security at risk.
Holder admitted Tuesday that he was interviewed in June 2012 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to find out if the attorney general, in his capacity as head of the Justice Department, was aware of a possible leak of classified information.
According to the AP, the investigation into the news agency’s phone history is likely the result of a May 7, 2012 article that revealed the CIA thwarted a bomb plot planned to originate out of Yemen to avenge the death of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was killed by US Navy SEALs one year earlier to the week. Days before the AP published the bombshell, the US Department of Homeland Security said there was “no indication of any specific, credible threats or plots against the US tied to the one-year anniversary of Bin Laden’s death.”
This week, Holder said that the leaking of intelligence out of the CIA and to the AP was a major blow to the US and put the nation’s security at risk.
"I have been a prosecutor since 1976 and I have to say that this is among, if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I have ever seen,” Holder said.
"It put the American people at risk, and that is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk. And trying to determine who was responsible for that I think required very aggressive action.”
But as the Justice Department insists that the probe was necessary to try and plug any leak to journalists, the AP is standing by their decision to publish the article — a decision, says the AP, which was made after consulting the CIA and the White House.
The Washington Post wrote on Thursday that the AP only published their article on the foiled bomb plot after a last-minute meeting with the CIA that came five days after they asked if they could go to print.
“The CIA officials, who had initially cited national security concerns in an attempt to delay publication, no longer had those worries” the Post reported. “Instead, the Obama administration was planning to announce the successful counterterrorism operation that Tuesday.”
According to individuals familiar with these exchanges that occurred last May, the AP refused efforts to negotiate the publishing of the article after they were assured that it would not raise any national security concerns. CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell told former White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor that the AP was offered some additional background details to persuade them to hold off, the Post reported, but the agency refused to wait any longer when they were told national security concerns were “no longer an issue” early Monday.
Among the proposals the AP was presented with, Vietor told the post, was waiting one day before publishing, then going live with their story one hour before an official announcement. The White House shut that suggestion down and instead offered the AP five minutes of exclusivity, after which the Obama administration would go public with their thwarting of the terror plot. Moments later, the AP decided to publish it on their terms.
“We did not publish anything until we were assured by high-ranking officials with direct knowledge of the situation, in more than one part of the government, that the national security risk was over and no one was in danger. The only deal was to hold the story until any security risk was resolved,” AP spokeswoman Erin Madigan White told the Post.
But even if AP was essentially given the go ahead to do their report, it does not mean the CIA operative who exposed the details was permitted to go to the press. The subsequent probe into the AP’s phone records target the agency’s sources, not necessarily their story, and could bring the government face-to-face with the agent who explained a foiled terror plot before the president could make the announcement himself.
From a Thursday afternoon press conference in Washington, Pres. Obama stood by Holder and agreed with his interpretation of the severity of the leaks.
“Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. They can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk. They can put some of our intelligence officers who are in various dangerous situations that are easily compromised at risk,” said Obama. “US national security is dependent on those folks being able to operate with confidence that folks back home have their backs, so they’re not just left out there high and dry and potentially put in any more danger.”
“It’s important to recognize that when we express concern about leaks at a time when I’ve still got 60,000-plus troops in Afghanistan and I still got a whole bunch of intelligence officers around the world who are in risky situations,” added the president.
Current CIA Director John Brennan was also questioned by the FBI over the leak and denied claims in February that he was the source of AP’s intelligence. In January, CIA vet John Kiriakou was sentenced to over two years in jail for leaking the identity of a covert agent to journalists. Kiriakou is one of seven people prosecuted by the Obama administration for leaking intelligence under the Espionage Act of 1917.