Did the White House Sabotage the War on Terror by Leaking the Name of an al Qaeda Double Agent?

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Pakistan and Britain are accusing the Bush administration of undermining its fight against al Qaeda by revealing the name of computer expert Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan while he was still working as an undercover double agent. We speak with Middle East expert and online blogger Juan Cole. [includes rush transcript]

New York senator Chuck Schumer is asking the White House to explain how and why the name of an al-Qaeda informant arrested in Pakistan last month was leaked to the press.

The name of computer expert Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan first appeared in The New York Times last week. Pakistani intelligence sources are accusing the Bush administration of undermining its fight against al Qaeda by revealing Khan’s name while he was still working as an undercover double agent.

Unnamed U.S. officials leaked his name to the press in an attempt of the Bush administration to defend last week’s heightened terror threat level. In a letter to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice Schumer said that the disclosure of Khan’s capture may have complicated efforts to combat terror.

Meanwhile, The New York Times is reporting that a new portrait of al Qaeda’s inner workings is emerging from information seized after Khan’s arrest. The Times says intelligence analysts find that a new generation of al Qaeda operatives appears to be filling a vacuum created when leaders were killed or captured. The information reveals a far more complex picture of al Qaeda than President Bush has presented on his campaign trail, where he has claimed that much of al Qaeda”s leadership has been killed or captured.

  • Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the History Department of the University of Michigan. He runs an analytical website called “Informed Comment” in which he provides a daily round-up of news and events in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world. Cole speaks fluent Arabic and Farsi and has lived all over the Muslim world for extended periods of time.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk about the story of the exposing of Mohammad Khan, we caught up with Middle East analyst, Juan Cole, professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan; he runs an analytical website called Informed Comment, in which he provides a daily roundup of news and events in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab World. He speaks fluent Arabic and Persian and has lived around the Muslim world for extended periods of time. We asked him about the exposing of Mohammad Khan.

JUAN COLE: This seems to me to be a really big story. It’s amazing to me how little play it has gotten in the American print press, as well as the cable television news. It appears to be the case that a big break came in the al Qaeda investigation in Pakistan in June. They arrested a man named Arrocci, a cousin of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, one of the key Lieutenants. Arrocci in turn gave up a younger man, 25 years old, named Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, who was living in Lahore and was a computer whiz; a hacker, he had been providing electronic communication services to al Qaeda. Some of the leadership, which is in the wilds of the no-man’s land between Afghanistan and Pakistan, had been getting him messages by courier, and he would encrypt them and put them up on the web or send them by email. And he was arrested July 13. It was possible for the Pakistani military intelligence to turn him. So, he was willing to flip, and begin informing on al Qaeda and to keep his correspondence on line; so they continued to correspond with him as though he were still working for bin Laden. It was from his computer files that the U.S. learned that there had been a plot against U.S. financial institutions and other plots, some of them somewhat old. So, a decision was made by the Bush White House to release this information. Tom Ridge came out on Sunday, August 1, and announced that there was such a plot, and there would be extra security for those institutions. In the course of the off the record briefing that the Homeland Security did for the press, a Bush administration official mentioned that the information had come from Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan. Now, he was still a double agent and was undercover, and was sending email messages, according to Pakistani sources, on Sunday and the following Monday, to his al Qaeda contacts in London, who still thought he was on the inside. So, the next day, “The New York Times” printed the name on the principle that you don’t tell the press something you don’t want to see in the newspaper, and that in turn caused a big furor in Pakistan and the United Kingdom where there were ongoing sting operations being run through Khan. The British had to swoop in and arrest 13 of Khan’s correspondents, lest they scatter once they heard he had been arrested. In fact, they lost five of them. Many of them they’re going to have to release for lack of evidence. The cases have not been made. Hayat, the Pakistani Interior Minister, is furious. He said Khan is the kind of asset that could have led to bin Laden himself, had he not been outed.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to professor Juan Cole. His blog, juancole.com. How do you know that he was a double agent? What is this based on?

JUAN COLE: Well, there are two indications of this. First of all, this is what Pakistani intelligence sources told Reuters last Friday in Karachi. So, the Pakistanis maintain it. Hayat has implicitly endorsed this information, and other Pakistani Ministers, Rasheed Ahmed, for instance, have admitted it. So, the other thing is that it’s very clear from the reaction in Britain, where people have been unwilling to come out and say this, that they are very upset. Mi-5 has actually given an interview to “The New York Times” in which they have complained about the damage that was done to the ongoing cases. So, both sources that have are talked to journalists in Pakistan and in the United Kingdom have confirmed this story. The Bush administration officials’ line on it, and Condoleezza Rice was on CNN Sunday, was to admit that a Bush administration official did in fact provide Khan’s name to the press on background, but then to say that they don’t know if he was a double agent. This just seems to be disingenuous.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what happened with Condoleezza Rice in her interview with Wolf Blitzer, CNN, and then on “background” with Wolf Blitzer.

JUAN COLE: That was actually a mistake on my part. In the course of his interview with her —- I have to say, Wolf was on top of the story in a way that most television journalists have not been—- he asked her about the incident, and she admitted that the name had been in fact provided to the press on background when the Ridge briefing was done the previous Sunday. Then she also admitted — then she said she didn’t know if he was a double agent. And later in the broadcast, Wolf had two senators on, Charles Schumer and George Allen, and he said to them that Condoleezza had admitted this to him, and I misheard him. I thought he said she told him something more on background, but he was referring to the fact that the reporters have been told this on background. I’m sorry, I got that mixed up. But in any case, that the Bush administration released his name has been confirmed by the National Security Adviser, and it seems to me it’s just unbelievable that this could happen. It’s an incredible screw-up and it endangers us all.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain further why it endangers everyone, and why you think that the U.S. was willing to give him up, even while he was undercover?

JUAN COLE: Well, to take the second question first, it seems clear to me that the Bush administration went public with what had been found on Khan’s computers for political advantage. Everyone knows that whenever you mention terrorism and al Qaeda, Bush’s numbers go up. It may also be that they made a calculation that this information was likely to become public during the campaign, and if they had not released it, it would look as though they weren’t on the ball, it would be used against them. So, either for positive reasons or negative reason, they decided to go public with it. The British political establishment is deeply critical of this decision. They don’t believe it should have been made public. And the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has written an Op-Ed in the Guardian criticizing the Bush administration for having done this. But that decision was made. Everything followed from the decision. Once you decided to let the information out, that we now know about these plots that were being hatched before September 11, then, of course, the reporters are going to say, well how do you know that? And the potential for either an inadvertent leak of the name or for a deliberate decision to leak the name just to make the case solid was there. So, it all followed from this decision to go public, a decision which I think can’t be entirely removed from the campaign politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Mohammad Khan sent emails, five or six emails, is that right, to contacts in the United States?

JUAN COLE: Yes. At least this is what has been reported in the press. There’s some evidence on his computer of five or six contacts in the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: What happens to him now? Where is he being held? What happens to the people he’s contacted?

JUAN COLE: The intelligence and security people in each of the countries that he had contacts in are swooping in and arresting his contacts. A Senior Radicalist Islamist was hiding in Dubai and they arrested him. He’s implicated in attempts against the life of Pakistani Dictator Pervez Musharaaf. In Britain they have swooped down on people. If the information in the computer were sufficiently detailed to allow the U.S. to find the five or six people that he was talking to here, certainly, they will be arrested as well. Because his name was revealed in the press, they have choice but to attempt to arrest these people. In many instances, they may not actually have enough evidence against them to hold them, because being an email contact with Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan is not a crime.

AMY GOODMAN: And your read on the Ridge news conference where he announced the upping of the security alert?

JUAN COLE: Well, I believe that it probably shouldn’t have been done. We now know that the information was very old. It is often said by the Bush administration officials that it had been updated as recently as January of 2004, but “The Guardian” has revealed now that what they really mean is that the file had been opened as recently as January of 2004. No new information was added to it. We don’t have evidence of ongoing operational activities. So, it seems as though in retrospect, it was old information. You know, I really don’t want to be completely cynical about these things. I have to believe that Tom Ridge really wants to protect the United States. So, I’m reluctant to come out and say, well, he made this announcement to get Bush re-elected. But it’s awfully suspicious that the announcement came right after the Democratic Convention, and it came on a day when churches were being bombed in Baghdad, and it came on a Sunday so that everybody knew that it would hit the newspapers Monday morning. It would be the top line on all of the newspapers in the country. Then the clumsy way it was done and the revealing of Khan’s identity so that they dried up this potentially very rich well of further tracking and information which might have led to bin Laden himself, might have led to a very severe crippling of al Qaeda operational capabilities, might have led to successful court cases against a whole range of operatives in London and elsewhere. In retrospect, this seems to me to have been a mistake and hard to separate from politics, at least.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole. He has a blog, juancole.com. He is professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. This is DemocracyNow!.

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