The Frustrating Secrecy in the Latest Al-Qaeda Bomb-Plot Story

When the government makes vague assertions anonymously, it serves political -- and not national security -- ends, so it's worth reserving judgment.

Here's how an Associated Press story about the latest "thwarted terror plot" begins:

At the FBI's explosives lab in Virginia, experts are picking apart a sophisticated new al-Qaida bomb to figure out whether it could have slipped past airport security and taken down a commercial airplane, U.S. officials said.

The unexploded bomb represents an intelligence prize, the result of a covert CIA operation in Yemen that thwarted a suicide mission around the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden, officials 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.
Whereas the Los Angeles Times reports it this way (emphasis added):
The FBI is analyzing a sophisticated explosive device, similar to the underwear bomb used in an attempt to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit in 2009, that U.S. officials believe was built by Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen in an effort to target Western aircraft. U.S. officials said Monday that no one was captured by U.S. agencies as part of the operation. The officials emphasized that they found no sign of an active plot to use the new bomb design against U.S. aviation or U.S.-bound jetliners.

The device was given to the CIA by a government outside Yemen, officials said. The White House said President Obama was informed of the discovery in April by John Brennan, his top counter-terrorism advisor, and was assured it "did not pose a threat to the public."
So is this actually a big success story for the CIA? Did it do something to get this explosive device? Did some counterterrorism policy we've adopted pay off? Or did someone in a friendly government just hand this over to the CIA? It's very difficult to tell from the news stories.

That's partly because everything is cloaked in needless anonymity. Check out this line from the L.A. Times story:
"At no time was this a viable plot," said a U.S. official who was not authorized to be quoted discussing the matter.
That's a striking assertion. If true, why is it offered anonymously?

It seems clear that U.S. officials want to be seen as both (a) thwarting a very scary terror plot and (b) never having let a terror plot get close to being viable. Maybe both of those things are true. I hope so. It's hard not to be suspicious when everything operates on the conceit that permission hasn't been granted to speak about these things. This faux-secrecy impedes national discourse.

Yes, there are some things that legitimately need to be classified. But this vague information given "on background," so no individual is accountable for it, serves the political ends of administrations, not the security needs of the United States. There are clearly terrorists out to do America harm. Perhaps this is an instance of good work by our national-security team thwarting them. But every time a new averted terror plot is announced I can't help but feel manipulated, partly because the government always seems eager to tell me things it won't stand behind.

In coming days and weeks, it'll be interesting to see if what Obama Administration officials have said to shape the initial stories about this matter turn out to be accurate or not.

Stay tuned.