Undressing the Underwear Bomb Plot

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

underwear fullness.jpg
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.

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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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