A year ago, the Associated Press discovered a foiled al-Qaida plot to blow up a plane. Worried about the safety of an informant in the case, the CIA asked the AP to delay publishing the story until its spy could be secured. The AP agreed.
Five days later, the CIA told the AP that its national security concerns were "no longer an issue." As a seasoned AP team of reporters and editors made final edits to their scoop, the CIA backtracked and asked the news agency to delay the story one more day. New national security concerns?
Nope. The only concern was public relations. The Obama administration planned to promote the failed plot the next day. Hold the story, the CIA said, and "you can have it exclusively for five minutes" before the White House announces it.
President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder insist that the leak endangered American lives. But details of the AP-CIA discussions, as reported by The Washington Post, raise serious questions about the gravity of the leak and the administration's credibility. They also reflect the tense and traditional relationship between journalists and national security officials, a fragile bond of trust that may now be bent or broken.
In that way, the leak investigation might actually jeopardize national security.
(Disclosure: I worked for the AP for more than 20 years, including a 2008-10 stint as Washington bureau chief.)
After considering the CIA's outlandish request to postpone for public-relations reasons, the AP published its story with no further delay. The White House trumpeted the foiled plot, injecting the national security victory into Obama's reelection campaign.
Privately, the leak became an obsession to those inside the administration who believed a life-saving antiterrorism operation had been jeopardized. U.S. officials tell the Los Angeles Times that the informant, reportedly a British subject of Saudi birth, had earned the trust of terrorists and had provided information used to disrupt al-Qaida's Yemeni affiliate.
The group had trained and outfitted the informant with an underwear bomb designed to pass airport security. He turned it over to his handlers, the Times reported, and the CIA planned to make it appear that the underwear bomb had failed, so that his infiltration could continue.
When the AP distributed its story May 7, 2012, it disclosed details of the bombing plot, U.S. officials told the Times, and the potential for using the informant again was lost.
Details of this case raise issues with Obama's leaks-kill-people narrative. First, the AP story did not mention an informant. Second, government officials tell me the CIA never asked the news agency to kill the story. Third, there is reason to doubt claims that the leak prevented the re-infiltration of the informant. Once his suicide mission "failed," why would al-Qaida trust the informant again?
There is also the question of whether the administration is obligated to notify the American public about a plot to destroy an airliner with a newly developed security-busting bomb. Did the government really plan to keep this secret?
And if the AP story was grave enough to justify an unprecedented extension of police powers via the leak probe, why did the CIA tell the wire service that security concerns were resolved?
Finally, why did the White House take a victory lap over the foiled plot?
All this leads me to four tentative conclusions.
The leak inquiry threatens national security. The AP acted responsibly by checking its story with the Obama administration. News organizations do this all the time — not to get permission but to make sure that their stories are accurate and don't undermine U.S. security.
This practice requires mutual trust between adversaries. The government needs reporters to flag national security stories before harm is done. Journalists need government officials to protest only those stories that pose a legitimate risk to the nation and to not use the relationship to curb political fallout.
What might happen when journalists think they're being gamed — when delays are sought for news conferences and when fishing expeditions are launched against sources? Journalists might trust government less, share less — and missions might be compromised.
You should be worried about your phone records. The Justice Department seized AP records knowing that it would eventually notify the wire service and that the intrusion would be widely reported. You don't have the AP's power. If the Obama administration would go to these lengths against the world's oldest and largest news organization, how deep might it dig into your life? If officials didn't give the AP a heads up, why would they ever tell you about seizing your records?
Obama is intimidating whistle-blowers. As I wrote the other day, this story is not just about journalists and their feelings. It's about good men and women who know about wrongdoing in government — and now know that the Obama administration will go to unprecedented lengths to shut them up. It's an indirect but certain threat to the First Amendment.
The White House has a credibility crisis. After the IRS lied about targeting of conservatives and the White House minimized the State Department's role in disputed Benghazi talking points, the justification for snooping on the AP raises new questions about the administration's credibility.
One of those questions is whether the CIA and White House are more concerned about plugging leaks or about managing spin.