Undressing the Underwear Bomb Plot

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As new details emerge, the flaws in the earliest news stories are impossible to ignore.

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Reuters

In its original story on the underwear bomb plot that's been making international headlines, The Associated Press said that it waited for days to publish at the request of the Obama Administration. "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 news agency finally reported. "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. It's not immediately clear what happened to the alleged bomber."

That story quickly spread. As it turns out, however, it's an incomplete and misleading account of what happened. Here's an excerpt from the story that the New York Times subsequently published:

The would-be 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 suicide mission, American and foreign officials said Tuesday. In an extraordinary intelligence coup, the double agent left Yemen, traveling by way of the United Arab Emirates, and delivered both the innovative bomb designed for his air attack and critical information on the group's leaders to the C.I.A., Saudi and other 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.

So Saudi intelligence rather than the C.I.A. thwarted the plot? It certainly sounds that way from the Times version of events. On the other hand, here's The Washington Post in their day two story:

White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan and others made it clear that the involvement of the CIA and its partners went well beyond simply watching the plot unfold. "We're confident that neither the device nor the intended user of this device posed a threat to us," Brennan said in an interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" program. "We had the device in our control, and we were confident that it was not going to pose a threat to the American public."

The paraphrase supports the notion that the C.I.A. played a big role. But the subsequent quote doesn't match, does it? As quoted, Brennan seems to be saying that the United States always knew a double-agent was involved, not that CIA involvement went "well beyond" observing the matter.

That isn't to say my parsing is definitive. Far from it. All we really know is that the day one stories overstated the C.I.A.'s role by failing to mention Saudi intelligence -- and that various news organizations, having talked to various unnamed officials, are confidently offering accounts of what happened, even though some are in conflict with one another and no one really knows what precisely the C.I.A.'s role was. Why doesn't anyone just fess up to that reality? 

Official secrecy doesn't actually bother me in this case. The ability to work with a double agent inside a foreign terrorist organization is exactly the sort of thing the C.I.A. can legitimately do in secret.

Here's what does bother me:

1) Misleading versions of the story being credulously reported.

2) The unnamed officials who are almost certainly engaged in sanctioned leaks. The Obama Administration ought to release all the information that is prudent on the record. As noted yesterday, information given "on background," so no individual is accountable for it, serves the political ends of the administration, not the security needs of the U.S.

I don't expect federal officials are going to change their ways anytime soon. But perhaps the media could be a bit less credulous when news breaks of a thwarted terror plot. The details that follow in the first 24 hours almost always prove incomplete at best. Shouldn't that be factored into how coverage is presented? What if newspaper reporters were to write something like the following into their stories: "Administration officials weren't willing to go on record with details, and the government has an incentive to mislead the press in various ways with its anonymously offered statements, so best to reserve judgment on what precisely happened and how much credit the C.I.A. should get. We'll do our best to nail down more details in coming days."

That is the actual truth, right?

The point isn't to deny the C.I.A. praise. Though I think its behavior is sometimes worthy of criticism -- and at times has warranted criminal prosecution -- it's also true that its agents sometimes risk their lives to do moral work that saves lives and is never acknowledged. If that isn't true in this instance, it's true in some other instance about which we've never heard. The fact remains that both the government and the press should stick to the facts when informing the public.

Self government demands good information. Or at least a greater reluctance to pass on uncertain information as if it's sound.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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