U.S. intelligence officials are complaining that recent news leaks of America's spying capabilities have severely undermined efforts to keep tabs on al-Qaeda. The New York Times reports today that unnamed officials claim the normal communications channels used by al-Qaeda's top operatives have gone silent in the two months, following a major news scoop that seemed to embarrass the terrorist organization's leaders, but also exposed the manner in which Western spies were keeping tabs on them.
You may recall that back in August, the United States temporarily closed most of its embassies in the Middle East (and issued global travel warnings), due to an unspecified threat that appeared to be emanating from Yemen. A couple days later, it was reported that the warnings came about because al-Qaeda was believed to be in the final stages of planning a major attack (that was now apparently averted.) Shortly after that, McClatchy reported that the information on the attack came from "an intercepted communication between Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri in which Zawahiri gave “clear orders” to al-Wuhaysi, who was recently named al Qaida’s general manager, to carry out an attack."
A few days later, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin at The Daily Beast piled on, adding that the intercepted communication in question was actually a "conference call" between more than 20 top al-Qaeda leaders.
Leaking the details about the interception was most likely meant to both reassure the American public that the spies looking out for them were on top of their game, and that the aggressive tactics of the National Security Agency — which had taken so much heat after the revelations by Edward Snowden — are justified. In other words, spying keeps people safe.
Now this newest report is yet another broadside at the Edward Snowden's of the world, but from the reverse angle. Spying only keeps people safe, if no one knows anything about it. The Times story takes pains to point out that Snowden's leaks were "layered" and difficult to understand. Yet, they were damaging in a general, big picture sense. (They hurt diplomatic relations and exposed the reach of the NSA's capabilities.) But the conference call leak was terribly specific, and so is the aftermath. The drop-off in al-Qaeda traffic is allegedly noticeable and dramatic, and specifically timed to the revelations being made public.
Al-Qaeda now has to find new ways to transmit information, and the intelligence community will have to find new ways to stop them. And they probably will eventually, but both sides may have been set back by months. Yet, both "leaks" — the stories from August and today's intelligence update — are meant to send the same message: "We can't do our job, unless everyone keeps their mouth shut." Somehow we doubt that the next potential whistleblower will get that message.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.