The mixing of anti-terrorism policy with the 2004 presidential campaign is becoming destructive. It is creating a vicious cycle of hype, skepticism and mistrust that puts the country's security at risk.
The dangers of politicizing terrorism were clear in this month's announcement about potential attacks on financial centers in the New York area and in Washington. When Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge disclosed the threats on Aug. 1, he faced immediate skepticism about whether the intelligence was valid. Sadly, the Bush administration had helped create this climate of public suspicion by overusing its elaborate, color-coded system of terrorism warnings. After a terrorism advisory by Attorney General John Ashcroft last spring was pooh-poohed the same day by Ridge, some people wondered whether these warnings were being used for political effect.
In the administration's eagerness to demonstrate the seriousness of the threat against financial centers, something terrible happened. An official in Washington or Pakistan, it's not clear which, leaked the name of the captured al Qaeda operative who was a main source of the information -- a 25-year-old Pakistani named Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan. His name was leaked to the New York Times on Aug. 1, the same day the terror warning was issued, in a seeming attempt to bolster the credibility of the intelligence report.
Whatever the reason for the leak, it was disastrous for intelligence operations.
According to a Post report attributed to a senior U.S. official, "Khan became part of a sting operation organized by the CIA after he was captured last month [July 13] and agreed to send coded e-mail messages to al Qaeda contacts around the world." That sting operation was blown instantly by the leak of Khan's name.
This isn't a normal leak case; the stakes here are life and death. From what we know, it appears that Khan may, all too briefly, have been one of the most important agents in place the United States has managed to recruit in al Qaeda. Had he been able to continue e-mailing members of al Qaeda, security agencies could have rolled up many more members of the network. But once Khan's name was in the paper Aug. 2, any chance of exploiting him further was gone.
The British had to move quickly to catch Khan's e-mail contacts. On Aug. 3, they arrested 13 alleged al Qaeda members, including a senior operative named Eisa Hindi. According to a British press report, five additional al Qaeda suspects may have been able to escape capture because of the leak of Khan's name.
Intelligence officers live for the kind of break that the Khan operation provided. So it's not surprising that British and Pakistani officials have been furious about the leaks. Their indignant comments were reported by University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, who has been tracking the Kahn story carefully on his blog (juancole.com). "There are very good reasons why we shouldn't reveal certain information to the public," complained British Home Secretary David Blunkett. Pakistan's interior minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, said of the Khan case: "This is a very sensitive subject. We must be very careful. We must exercise extreme caution in coming out with such names and such information."
So where did the leak originate? National security adviser Condoleezza Rice initially seemed to agree with a statement by CNN's Wolf Blitzer that Khan's name had been disclosed on background in Washington. "On background," she said, noting that the challenge was "giving enough information to the public so that they know that you're dealing with a specific, credible, different kind of threat" without harming intelligence operations. A National Security Council spokesman said later that Rice had misspoken in appearing to confirm that the leak came from U.S. officials. So it remains unclear who outed Khan.
A government has no asset more precious than public trust. That's especially true for a nation threatened by a terrorist adversary, where good intelligence and reliable warnings can save lives. By linking its reelection campaign so closely to the war on terrorism, the Bush administration has eroded its credibility -- to the point that some members of the public are beginning to wonder whether terrorism warnings are all just politics. The administration risks compounding that climate of politicization by nominating a sitting Republican member of Congress, Porter Goss, to be the next CIA director.
Public cynicism about terrorism is dangerous -- and so is the politicization of intelligence that breeds it. The danger is that when the administration warns for real about the next Sept. 11, it won't be believed.