Getting the story wrong

June 5, 2013

If you repeat something often enough, people may come to believe it is true.

How many times have you read over the past month that the Associated Press scoop back on May 7, 2012, was that the CIA had disrupted a bombing plot by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen to take down a U.S.-bound airliner?

And how often has that been followed in recent accounts by added information about how the White House later gave out details about the CIA infiltrating the terrorist group with a Saudi-born, British-recruited agent who obtained a new type of underwear bomb that he was supposed to use?

What’s left out in almost all the frequent retelling of the original AP story is that in the sixth paragraph it quoted White House press secretary Jay Carney’s April 26 statement, the week before, that assured “the American public that [the administration] knew of no al-Qaeda plots against the U.S. around the anniversary of bin Laden’s death.” The AP story implied that Carney’s statement was untrue.

In effect the story turned the disclosure of what was a highly secret, important clandestine operation into an action that somehow showed the Obama administration misleading the American public about the level of the al-Qaeda threat in the midst of a presidential election year.

In an effort to counter the misimpression caused by the story, John Brennan, then-White House counterterrorism chief, along with others, held backgrounders with analysts and reporters and disclosed immediately after the AP story appeared that there was no threat to the United States — in effect, no real “al-Qaeda plot” because the whole affair was run by the CIA and was thus under U.S. control.

The CIA use of a Saudi agent to get a bomb device by convincing the terrorists he would blow up an America-bound aircraft was a riveting story. But there were other goals for the operation, including finding the location in Yemen of the bomb builder.

Not knowing all the facts when the original story was written, the AP had put the story in the wrong context. Those new facts that were released late on May 7 by the administration attempted to set the record right while also trying to control the political damage that could arise from the AP story.

The new information has not stopped repeated references to the CIA breaking up an al- Qaeda plot. On May 19, more than a week after the original story, AP President Gary Pruitt went on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and described his news organization’s story as the United States thwarting “an al-Qaeda plot to place a bomb on an airliner.”

Pruitt went on to say, “This was very good news, but strangely, at the same time, the administration, through the press secretary and the Department of Homeland Security, were telling the American public that there was no credible evidence of a terrorist plot related to the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.”

Pruitt continued: “So that was misleading to the American public. We felt the American public needed to know this story.”

But that latter part of the story was wrong. Carney was not misleading the American public. The AP, to some degree was, and so was Pruitt. It was a CIA-controlled operation, not an al-Qaeda plot.

That misunderstanding or lack of understanding of the facts persists.

“The Talk of the Town” column in the latest New Yorker magazine describes Brennan in May 2012 as having “touted the success of the operation that the A.P. described, without citing any damage to national security.” Anyone seriously reporting on the situation would hear of the damage this leak has done to CIA relations with Saudi and British intelligence, as well as the lost future opportunities that could have come from this agent and his contacts inside al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

And what about those AP phone records? In a letter sent Tuesday to Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Peter J. Kadzik said the records obtained “covered only a portion of a two-month period” and only involved “toll records for phone numbers that prosecutors had a basis to believe were associated with AP personnel involved in the reporting of the classified information.” There were at least six such employees working the story in several cities.

The toll records, Kadzik said, would be “closely held” and “used solely only for the purposes of this investigation.” That has not stopped cries from going up that phone records of sources for a hundred reporters would be exposed to government review.

Kadzik also said Justice followed its guidelines when it decided not to inform the AP of its phone subpoenas until 90 days after they were delivered. Prosecutors have not said why they failed to negotiate with the AP over the subpoenas ahead of time, but Kadzik pointed to a section of Justice regulations that took into consideration “through the negotiation process the potential target (the leaker) could become aware of the investigation, its focus and its scope, and seek to destroy evidence, create a false narrative as a defense, or otherwise obstruct the investigation.”

The press should remember that in this case, and in the situation surrounding Fox News State Department reporter James Rosen, we are not dealing with whistleblowing employees disclosing government malfeasance. These are individuals who not only broke the law, they apparently also have harmed ongoing intelligence operations.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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