October 10, 2013

Leaks have consequences. Just ask Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who was kidnapped in retaliation for allowing the United States to carry out a special operations raid in Tripoli that captured a senior al-Qaeda leader, Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, known as Abu Anas al-Libi.

How did the kidnappers know that the prime minister had approved the raid? After all, his government denied any prior knowledge of the U.S. action. Simple: The Obama administration told them. A front-page story in the New York Times, “U.S. Officials Say Libya Approved Commando Raids,” reported that “After months of lobbying by American officials, the Libyans consented ‘some time ago’ — weeks or perhaps even months — to the United States operations.” The article, which cites “more than half a dozen American diplomatic, military, law enforcement, intelligence and other administration officials” as sources, notes that “The Libyans’ consent marks a significant step forward for the Obama administration, which has been criticized by Congressional Republicans for moving too slowly to apprehend the Benghazi suspects.”

In other words, the Obama administration exposed the Libyan government’s cooperation in a top-secret covert action in order to bolster the president against domestic political criticism.

It gets worse. The exposure of the Libyan government’s secret cooperation is not the only damaging leak surrounding the Libyan raid. According to the Times, “the United States had hoped to keep secret” the very fact of al-Libi’s capture, “but that leaked out to the news media.” Not only that, the Times revealed that a second raid had been planned, but not carried out, “to seize a militia leader suspected of carrying out the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi.”

This is simply devastating.

After spending five years vaporizing terrorist targets (and all the intelligence in their brains) with drones, the administration finally captures a senior al-Qaeda leader alive. Al-Libi is a potential treasure trove of intelligence on al-Qaeda’s operations in Libya and its network in and relationship with Iran. But the exposure of al-Libi’s capture, and the fact that he has been sent for interrogation aboard a Navy ship, dramatically undermines the effectiveness of that interrogation.

It is not unusual for a terrorist to “disappear” from his own network’s radar screen for some time. His fellow terrorists may assume he has gone into hiding or stopped communicating for some innocuous reason. But as soon as al-Qaeda learns that one its senior operatives has been captured by the United States, it rapidly deploys countermeasures to control the damage he can do in an interrogation — purging e-mail accounts, shutting down phone numbers, dispersing terrorist cells, shutting down training camps and safe houses and closing other vital trails of intelligence the United States needs to follow. By contrast, if al-Qaeda does not know a terrorist is in custody, these intelligence trails can remain warm for weeks and even months — while the captured terrorist helps us exploit them and roll up other operatives who may not realize they are in our sights. Whoever revealed al Libi’s capture to the media basically told al-Qaeda to shut down vital intelligence trails that could have led us to other terrorists.

Worse still, the leak that the United States had planned another raid to capture one of the terrorists behind the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi has tipped off that terrorist to our plans. According to the Times, the target, Abu Ahmed Khattala, “has appeared to live his life normally in eastern Libya and has been interviewed by several news outlets.” He clearly believed he was out of America’s reach. Now he knows that is not the case. He has been told not only that the United States can reach him inside Libya, but that we were actively planning to do just that. No doubt he is no longer out in the open “living his life normally,” but has gone into hiding — making his capture all the more unlikely.

Of course, he need not worry any more. With the leak that the Libyans approved both raids, and the kidnapping of the Libyan prime minister, his government probably will not authorize more such operations for the foreseeable future. As the Times reported even before the kidnapping, “the backlash against a second raid could bring down the government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, which has teetered on the brink of collapse.”

Even when this administration gets something right, it can’t seem to get it right. After years of destroying vital treasure troves of intelligence with drones, Obama finally changed course and captured a high-value target alive. And more than a year after the Benghazi attacks, the administration finally secured Libya’s consent to let us bring the perpetrators to justice. Yet even in success, this administration found a way to screw things up — all because, in the immortal words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, they can’t seem to “shut the f*** up.”

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