Did the Leak of the CIA Operation in Yemen Justify “Very Aggressive Action” to Investigate Its Source?

Attorney General Eric Holder recused himself from approving the AP subpoenas in the CIA operation leak case because he himself had been interviewed in the investigation. But at a press conference today, Holder defended the DOJ investigation on the ground that the nature of the leak required “very aggressive action.” Here’s what Holder said:

This was a very serious — a very serious leak, a very, very serious leak. I’ve been a prosecutor since 1976 and I have to say that this is among — if not the most serious, it is within the top two or three most serious leaks that I’ve ever seen. It put the American people at risk. And that is not hyperbole. It put the American people at risk. And trying to determine who was responsible for that, I think, required very aggressive action.

Why might Holder think that? Some will conclude that Holder is lying, and that as a result he doesn’t really think it’s true. But let’s revisit the May 7, 2012, Associated Press story that started the investigation. Here’s the most relevant excerpt:

The CIA thwarted an ambitious plot by al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, The Associated Press has learned.

The plot involved an upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas 2009. This new bomb was also designed to be used in a passenger’s underwear, but this time al-Qaeda developed a more refined detonation system, U.S. officials said.

The FBI is examining the latest bomb to see whether it could have passed through airport security and brought down an airplane, officials said. They said the device did not contain metal, meaning it probably could have passed through an airport metal detector. But it was not clear whether new body scanners used in many airports would have detected it.

The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought a plane ticket when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said. . . .

The AP learned about the thwarted plot last week but agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way.

The AP story tells us three important things: 1) The CIA knew about the details of the plot during its planning stages; 2) The CIA not only interrupted the plot but actually took the bomb into its possession and then passed it off to the FBI; and 3) the CIA’s work was occurring as recently as a few days before the AP story was published on 5/7/2012.

Based on those three facts, it seems pretty likely that the CIA had people “on the inside” of Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate who took possession of the bomb. As covert agents, they would have covered up their removal of the bomb by making it seem like something else had happened. That matters, I think, because it means that the Al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen have a ready way to find the CIA plant(s). Just trace back what happened to the bomb, and specifically find the folks who claim to have seen it last and who came up with some story about what happened to it around the beginning of May. Chances are, that would bring you to the guys working for the CIA. And that discovery probably means no more CIA plants working on the inside the next time, which may take away the person(s) who otherwise could disrupt future plots or tip off U.S. authorities to a future attack.

Of course, we can’t be sure that this is the case. But a close read of the original AP story does suggest reasons why this would have been a particularly dangerous leak. And, if so, that may explain why AG Holder thinks that this leak justifies a “very aggressive” investigation.

UPDATE: Helpful comments point me to this New York Times story from May 8, 2012, that added considerably more details after the initial AP story was out:

The suicide bomber dispatched by the Yemen branch of Al Qaeda last month to blow up a United States-bound airliner was actually an intelligence agent for Saudi Arabia who infiltrated the terrorist group and volunteered for the mission, American and foreign officials said Tuesday.

In an extraordinary intelligence coup, the double agent left Yemen last month, traveling by way of the United Arab Emirates, and delivered both the innovative bomb designed for his aviation attack and inside information on the group’s leaders, locations, methods and plans to the Central Intelligence Agency, Saudi intelligence and allied foreign intelligence agencies.

Officials said the agent, whose identity they would not disclose, works for the Saudi intelligence service, which has cooperated closely with the C.I.A. for several years against the terrorist group in Yemen. He operated in Yemen with the full knowledge of the C.I.A. but not under its direct supervision, the officials said.

After spending weeks at the center of Al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, the intelligence agent provided critical information that permitted the C.I.A. to direct the drone strike on Sunday that killed Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, the group’s external operations director and a suspect in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, an American destroyer, in Yemen in 2000.

He also handed over the bomb, designed by the group’s top explosives expert to be undetectable at airport security checks, to the F.B.I., which is analyzing its properties at its laboratory at Quantico, Va. The agent is now safe in Saudi Arabia, officials said. The bombing plot was kept secret for weeks by the C.I.A. and other agencies because they feared retaliation against the agent and his family — not, as some commentators have suggested, because the Obama administration wanted to schedule an announcement of the foiled plot, American officials said.

Officials said Tuesday night that the risk to the agent and his relatives had now been “mitigated,” evidently by moving both him and his family to safe locations.

But American intelligence officials were angry about the disclosure of the Qaeda plot, first reported Monday by The Associated Press, which had held the story for several days at the request of the C.I.A. They feared the leak would discourage foreign intelligence services from cooperating with the United States on risky missions in the future, said Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

“We are talking about compromising methods and sources and causing our partners to be leery about working with us,” said Mr. King, who spoke with reporters about the plot on Monday night and Tuesday after he was briefed by counterterrorism officials. Mr. King, who called the bomb plot “one of the most tightly held operations I’ve seen in my years in the House,” said he was told that government officials planned to investigate the source of the original leak. The C.I.A. declined to comment.

The added details complicate the picture somewhat, I think. On one hand, they suggest that the agent’s work may have been done and the information likely was going to become public at least to some extent at some point. On the other hand, the details add the complication about discouraging foreign intel services from working with the U.S., which is a concern that those with intel experience will be able to assess more accurately than I can.