Al-Qaeda operatives have become nearly impossible to track since a news report published last month revealed that American intelligence analysts intercepted messages between high-level terrorists, US officials now claim.
Over 20 US embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East were closed in early August after US spies reportedly discovered the makings of an Al-Qaeda terrorist plot. McClatchy newspapers reported on August 4 that the decision to close so many State Department facilities and issue a major travel advisory was the result of messages observed between Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s successor as the leader of Al-Qaeda, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, head of the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Senior US officials speaking on condition of anonymity told The New York Times that the McClatchy report has resulted in more damage to American national security than the thousands of pages of classified material leaked by Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor.
American spies are now “scrambling to find new ways to surveil” Al-Qaeda leadership and underlings because of a “sharp drop in the terrorists’ use of a major communications channel,” according to the Times report published Monday.
US intelligence officials and lawmakers have portrayed the would-be attack as one of the most dangerous plots since September 11, 2001.
“The switches weren’t turned off, but there has been a real decrease in quality” of the messages intercepted, one official said.
American intelligence officials and politicians on both sides of the aisle have claimed since June that Snowden’s leak would do irreparable harm to US counter-terrorism efforts. Yet the officials who spoke to the Times now maintain the McClatchy report has been more problematic, in part because of the nature of the Snowden revelations.
“It was something that was immediate, direct and involved specific people on specific communications about specific events,” a senior official said Monday of the conversation between Zawahari and Wuhayshi. “The Snowden stuff is layered and layered, and it will take a lot of time to understand it. There wasn’t a sudden drop-off from it. A lot of these guys think that they are not impacted by it, and it is difficult stuff for them to understand.”
Security officials worry that Washington’s ability to gather
reliable information will be even further damaged if Al-Qaeda
starts communications exclusively through couriers.
“They are agile, we are agile,” one senior intelligence officer told the Times. “When we see a change in behavior, our guys are changing right along with it, or we’re already seeing it and adapting to it. Our capabilities are changing in hours and days, versus weeks and months like we used to.”
Aside from the government insinuation that journalists should not cover sensitive national security matters because Al-Qaeda reads the Western press, media observers have criticized the Times for sniping at a competitor.
Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg wrote on Twitter that Monday’s report “pretty much accuses McClatchy journalists of helping Al-Qaeda.”
On August 2, two days before McClatchy revealed the names of the terrorists whose communications were monitored, the Times reported that the US intercepted talks between “senior operatives of Al-Qaeda,” withholding their identities at the government’s request.
McClatchy, held back by such an allegiance, denied that US intelligence officials were “scrambling to find new ways” to keep tabs on Al-Qaeda. The Times then published both names after the McClatchy report rendered the paper’s cooperation with the government irrelevant.
“The article in The New York Times this morning is an odd one,” James Asher, McClatchy Washington bureau chief, told Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone. “So far, the US government has not contacted us about our initial story to raise any concerns or to ask us about our sourcing…These communications were the basis for closing multiple embassies worldwide in early August and for putting Americans on high alert.”
Journalist Rania Khalek was less forgiving, tweeting: “New York Times unquestioningly parrots US government claims that national security journalism is empowering terrorists.”