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Al-Qaida Leaks Reveal Both Security And Political Worries

A police officer checks a car Wednesday at the entrance of Yemen's Sanaa International Airport. Security forces in the Middle East and Africa have been on heightened alert because of concerns about potential terrorist attacks.
Hani Mohammed
A police officer checks a car Wednesday at the entrance of Yemen's Sanaa International Airport. Security forces in the Middle East and Africa have been on heightened alert because of concerns about potential terrorist attacks.

Revelations this week that the U.S. intercepted communications between top al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri and other key terrorist figures in the Arabian Peninsula offered a pretty good plug for the work of the National Security Agency.

As leaks go, this was a big one. Was it a signal that government officials are going to be more open about intelligence gathering in the aftermath of the Edward Snowden affair?

It's a moment when many Americans, after all, have grown worried about the extent and scope of communication intercepts, due largely to the picture painted by Snowden, a former analyst. And polls report rising concern about the effect of anti-terrorism policies on civil liberties.

"It fits very well with those who want to defend the NSA," says Tom Sanderson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an international policy think tank.

Still, Sanderson doesn't believe that the leak was about answering Snowden's criticisms with proof of NSA effectiveness — or transparency.

Instead, he and other observers say it's part of a time-honored tradition of administrations leaking information in hopes of putting their own actions and decisions in the best possible light.

"It's not unusual for administrations to try to justify what they're doing when they're getting criticized," says Gary Schmitt, a former staff director for the Senate Intelligence Committee. "I wouldn't guess it was connected to Snowden, per se."

More About Benghazi Than Snowden?

It's possible that the administration, or someone in the government, felt it was necessary to offer a compelling and public justification for closing embassies and other diplomatic outposts in more than 20 countries.

The "cloud" of Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans were killed last September in an attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission, may have hovered over this particular leak, Sanderson suggests.

"They were a bit surprised by the criticism they got for closing all of the embassies," says Schmitt, who now directs a security studies center at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "They're certainly more conscious of embassy security issues than they were, absent Benghazi."

There's also a parallel with another moment in Libya. After the U.S. bombed the compound of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 1986, the Reagan administration similarly leaked information about intercepted communications that showed Libya was connected to a discotheque bombing in Berlin that killed an Army sergeant named Kenneth Ford.

"You can go back and back and back to find these [kinds of] leaks," Schmitt says.

Political Motivations

The latest leaks may have represented an attempt to find political cover, but the leaks themselves have earned the administration some criticism.

There have been complaints that the leaks have tipped off al-Qaida, and other terrorists, about its ability to listen in on their communications.

The administration also has been accused of hypocrisy, putting out such a big leak just after prosecuting Bradley Manning within an inch of his life for leaking huge amounts of classified documents.

And the Justice Department had been criticized this spring for snooping on Associated Press reporters in the wake of a story about another al-Qaida plot.

Leak As Rorschach Test

What all this really underscores is the sensitive and highly politicized nature of the fight against terrorism — and the Obama administration's response to it.

An administration that has touted its efforts to sideline al-Qaida is now having to cope with the reality of its refusal to fade away.

"We took these pretty extreme measures, closing all these embassies and sending cargo planes to Yemen to get people out," says Peter Juul, a policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.

Juul says the person or persons who leaked the information about intercepts wanted to build public confidence, "to make sure people know what their intelligence agencies are doing and not having them run off on wild speculation about why we're closing embassies, scratching their heads or being actively paranoid."

But it's difficult to know for sure what the motivations were behind leaks that were not only anonymous, but also quite conceivably lacked the blessing of top officials of the White House.

Instead of being simply reassuring, this one set of leaks managed to speak to concerns held from various points of view — whether it's the fear that the administration isn't capable of protecting Americans abroad, or the belief that NSA spying is helping to do just that.

"Unfortunately, politics has entered into this, as it always does," says Sanderson, the CSIS analyst.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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