A CIA analyst who played a lead role in locating Osama bin Laden was placed under cover by the agency this month because of new threat information indicating he might be targeted by al-Qaeda, U.S. officials said Monday.
The move is a highly unusual one for the CIA, which typically takes steps to protect its employees’ identities only when they are embarking on sensitive operations or travel overseas.
A U.S. official said that the decision was driven by information about possible efforts by al-Qaeda to seek revenge for the U.S. raid that ended with the death of bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May.
“We know from very recent intelligence that al-Qaeda is interested in finding U.S. counterterrorism officials tied to the CIA’s aggressive counterterrorism operations,” a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence matters. “Surely the vast majority of Americans understand why this individual needs to be protected.”
The step comes amid speculation online about the analyst’s identity, and efforts to single him out in now-iconic photos showing President Obama and other national security officials gathered in the White House situation room on the night of the bin Laden raid.
The CIA refused to comment on the identities of unnamed individuals in the photos — which were released by the White House — or on speculation that has surfaced in Internet publications and blogs.
CIA spokesman George Little said, “It’s simply unnecessary for media outlets to report identifying information of any kind that could help al-Qaeda and other militants find patriotic Americans who are countering the terrorist threat.”
Some news organizations have honored CIA requests to not publish the analyst’s name. A lengthy profile of the analyst by the Associated Press, for example, referred to him by his middle name, John, and said that in the hunt for the al-Qaeda chief “there may have been no one more important.”
Other details in the story, including a mention of the analyst’s college athletic career and apparent position at the edge of the frame in one of the situation room photos, have fueled further sleuthing by blog sites including Cryptome.org.
CIA veterans said that a decision to change cover status would offer limited protection to an analyst who has spent years as an “overt” officer, meaning he was free to use his real name and identify himself as a CIA employee.
The analyst is not expected to be given a new identity, a fictitious background or have his personal information scrubbed from public record databases — steps that the CIA takes for clandestine operatives.
The agency provides what is known as “light cover” for analysts and officials who travel overseas temporarily. Such employees are typically given documents that enable them to travel under a false name but aren’t designed to withstand serious scrutiny from a foreign intelligence service.
Even so, merely placing the bin Laden analyst “under cover” could deter further exposure by making it a potential crime for news organizations or former colleagues to disclose his identity.
“There’s no way they can unring the bell about who he is,” said a former senior CIA official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. But giving him an undercover designation “makes his identity classified information.”