Not long ago, The New York Times reflected on how the Internet unmasks anonymity at every turn. That sentiment could very well be applied to the case of the CIA analyst who spent a decade tracking down Osama bin Laden and, according to a Washington Post report today, has now been placed "under cover" by the agency "because of new threat information indicating he might be targeted by Al Qaeda."
As an "overt" officer, the analyst was previously "free to use his real name and identify himself as a CIA employee," according to the Post. But a profile of him by the Associated Press in early July raised awareness about his role. The AP only identified him by his middle name, John, in compliance with the "CIA's request not to publish his full name and withhold certain biographical details so that he would not become a target for retribution." But it was the story's intro--not the analyst's bio--that caught the eye of the group Cryptome, which specializes in data leaks. The AP mentioned that John was standing "just outside the frame" in the iconic photograph, below, of President Obama's national security team in the Situation Room during the raid that killed bin Laden. Cryptome homed in on the yellow patterned tie of a man just off camera (see red arrow) and then identified a tall man, face in full view and wearing the same or similar tie in another photo of the national security team from the White House Flickr stream. They also spotted the same man in a photo of CIA Chief Leon Panetta attending a private briefing on Capitol Hill that the AP says John also attended. Cryptome speculated that the man wearing the tie in question was John.
Cryptome's photo sleuthing was reposted on Gawker and The Daily Mail, stoking outrage in some corners. "Other than pure human curiosity, no benefit arises from knowing who this man is, if it even is him," Mediaite's Frances Martel wrote. "If the person in the photo isn’t 'John the CIA agent,' then an entire new set of complications arise." At Fox News, former CIA agent Mike Baker added that Gawker "apparently has decided that what we, and any al-Qaeda member or extremist with an Internet connection and an ability to spell 'Gawker' really needs to know is the actual identify of a person who spent the past decade tirelessly working out of the spotlight to track down bin Laden." Baker also criticized the AP for showing "little regard for the protection of the officer's identity" by not being able to resist publishing "tantalizing details" about the analyst, such as how his career progressed at the agency or how he walked on to his college basketball team (which suggests that he is a tall man, just like the man wearing the yellow tie.)
News outlets, in other words, are coming under fire for jeopardizing the analyst's security. But what about the CIA itself? In the Post's article today, the CIA refused to comment on the Internet speculation about John or on the identities of the individuals in the photos highlighted by Cryptome. And while we wouldn't expect the CIA to confirm that someone had identified one of their agents, CIA spokesman George Little didn't exactly cast serious doubt on the link. "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," he told the Post.
The CIA's role in the story raises several questions. If the man identified by Cryptome is indeed John--and it certainly may not be--why did the CIA let him be photographed in plain view at all? And why did the agency allow those photographs to be released to the public? Given that they were taken in the high-security Situation Room, one suspects they were reviewed for sensitive information. For example, a classified document resting on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's computer in the photo above is obscured.
Is it fair for the CIA to ask news outlets not to probe information that the government itself released? Even if Cryptome has the wrong man, did the agency open a can of worms by cooperating with the AP on John's profile and allowing the wire service to publish anecdotes such as John's presence in the famous Situation Room picture? The Post notes that by placing John "under cover," the CIA has essentially classified the analyst's identity, "making it a potential crime for news organizations or former colleagues to disclose" who he is. But one former CIA official tells the paper that even with the agency's action, "There's no way they can unring the bell about who he is."
We are not running the photos that Cryptome says show John. But we easily could: one that Cryptome identified as showing the man with the yellow tie's face is still available on the White House's Flickr stream, in high resolution for anyone to see and, since it's an official White House photo, without any copyright. Requests now to avoid speculating about the man in the yellow tie seem more like a plea to look away from a potential security blunder.
Update: The New York Observer's Aaron Gell has just published a nearly 4,000-word "exclusive" detailing how the paper identified John's true identity, only to ultimately withhold that identity (we imagine some readers drawn in by the headline may not appreciate the bait-and-switch). Gell reports that he learned John's real name only a couple days after the AP story ran, when a friend mentioned that he recognized the man pictured in the Cryptome photos. The Observer plugged the name into Google and snooped around the man's personal life, surfacing a college yearbook photo, finding his But the Observer ultimately decided to not print John's name in exchange for off-the-record conversations with John's colleagues. "The name was of no consequence to us," Gell writes. "Moreover, the question seemed worth asking--and we were suddenly in a position to ask it: Who was this John?" What does the Observer learn? We learn that John enjoys "the simple pleasures of any average Washington suburbanite" and favors the phrase "There's no 'I' in team," among other things.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.