For five days, reporters at the Associated Press had been sitting on a big scoop about a foiled al-Qaeda plot at the request of CIA officials. Then, in a hastily scheduled Monday morning meeting, the journalists were asked by agency officials to hold off on publishing the story for just one more day.
The CIA officials, who had initially cited national security concerns in an attempt to delay publication, no longer had those worries, according to individuals familiar with the exchange. Instead, the Obama administration was planning to announce the successful counterterrorism operation that Tuesday.
AP balked and proceeded to publish that Monday afternoon. Its May 2012 report is now at the center of a controversial and broad seizure of phone records of AP reporters’ home, office and cellphone lines. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the unauthorized disclosure about an intelligence operation to stop al-Qaeda from detonating explosives aboard a U.S. airliner was among the most serious leaks he could remember, and justified secretly obtaining records from a handful of reporters and editors over a span of two months.
Now, some members of Congress and media advocates are questioning why the administration viewed the leak that led to the May 7 AP story as so grave.
The president’s top counterterrorism adviser at the time, John O. Brennan, had appeared on “Good Morning America” the following day to trumpet the successful operation. He said that because of the work of U.S. intelligence, the plot did not pose an active threat to the American public.
Holder said this week that the unauthorized disclosure “put the American people at risk.”
The White House and CIA declined to comment for this article. But former White House national security spokesman Tommy Vietor, recalling the discussion in the administration last year, said officials were simply realistic in their response to AP’s story. They knew that if it were published, the White House would have to address it with an official, detailed statement.
“There was not some press conference planned to take credit for this,” Vietor said in an interview. “There was certainly an understanding [that] we’d have to mitigate and triage this and offer context for other reporters.”
AP’s story about the foiled plot was at odds with the calming message the White House had been conveying on the eve of the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden. On April 30, the Department of Homeland Security issued a statement saying that there was “no indication of any specific, credible threats or plots against the US tied to the one-year anniversary of Bin Laden’s death.”
AP reporters had learned in the spring of 2012 that the CIA had infiltrated the al-Qaeda branch behind the plot, according to the individuals familiar with the story, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the record. The plot centered on an attempt to get a bomb into an assailant’s underwear, like the bomb that failed to detonate on a Christmas Day 2009 flight to Detroit.
The news service was prepared to publish its scoop on May 2, 2012. But in discussions with government officials, the CIA stressed to AP that publishing anything about the operation to obtain the bomb and thwart the plot would create grave national security dangers and compromise a “sensitive intelligence operation.”
Michael J. Morell, the CIA’s deputy director, gave AP reporters some additional background information to persuade them to hold off, Vietor said. The agency needed several days more to protect what it had in the works.
Then, in a meeting on Monday, May 7, CIA officials reported that the national security concerns were “no longer an issue,” according to the individuals familiar with the discussion.
When the journalists rejected a plea to hold off longer, the CIA then offered a compromise. Would they wait a day if AP could have the story exclusively for an hour, with no government officials confirming it for that time?
The reporters left the meeting to discuss the idea with their editors. Within an hour, an administration official was on the line to AP’s offices.
The White House had quashed the one-hour offer as impossible. AP could have the story exclusively for five minutes before the White House made its own announcement. AP then rejected the request to postpone publication any longer.
An AP spokeswoman declined to discuss details of the meeting, AP discussions with government sources or the agencies to which the reporters spoke.
“As we told Reuters a year ago, at no point did AP offer or propose a deal in relation to this story,” said spokeswoman Erin Madigan White. “We did not publish anything until we were assured by high-ranking officials with direct knowledge of the situation, in more than one part of the government, that the national security risk was over and no one was in danger. The only deal was to hold the story until any security risk was resolved.”
Vietor said that it would be a mistake to dismiss the unauthorized disclosure because al-Qaeda failed to carry out its plot.
“We shouldn’t pretend that this leak of an unbelievably sensitive dangerous piece of information is okay because nobody died,” he said.
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.
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