Leak of Qaeda suspect name criticized
WASHINGTON -- A key Democratic senator yesterday demanded that the Bush administration explain how the name of a valuable Al Qaeda double agent appeared in the press last week, adding to a bipartisan chorus raising questions about an unusual amount of sensitive intelligence that has recently been released about the terrorist network.
Those expressing concern included members of the administration itself. Yesterday, aides to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pointed to a little-noticed remark he made in a speech Friday warning of the dangers of providing too much information about intelligence findings.
Over the last week, administration sources were quoted as revealing details about uncovered terrorist cells in Pakistan and Britain and alleged plots to blow up key financial institutions, kill top congressional leaders, destroy the US Capitol, and use tourist helicopters in New York City for attacks.
The stream of information has generated largely flattering stories about the Bush administration's efforts against terrorism -- including ''exclusive" cover stories in two of the three major newsweeklies -- but also prompted complaints that the White House was jeopardizing national security by revealing too much about its undercover operations.
Last week, The New York Times published a front-page article disclosing that an Al Qaeda computer specialist named Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan had been captured in mid-July and provided information that led to last week's alert raising the terrorism-risk color code to orange, or high.
Until then, Khan was assisting Pakistani intelligence in contacting key Al Qaeda operatives around the world. The revelation of his capture compromised any chance he could lead authorities to other terrorists and prompted British authorities to hurriedly arrest a dozen suspected terrorists they had been covertly watching.
The Times report cited both ''senior American officials" and Pakistani sources. Yesterday, Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, demanded the administration clarify which provided the name.
''I respectfully request an explanation to me and any other member of Congress who might wish one of who leaked this Mr. Khan's name, for what reason it was leaked, and whether the British and Pakistani reports that this leak compromised future intelligence activity are accurate," Schumer wrote.
Senator George Allen of Virginia, a Republican member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has also voiced concerns, telling CNN Sunday that ''in this situation they should have kept their mouth shut and just said, 'We have information, trust us.' "
And, speaking to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations on Friday, Rumsfeld echoed those concerns.
''People leak things, make mistakes," Rumsfeld said. ''And it's increasingly easy for [terrorists] to learn about how they can manage their affairs in a way that they cannot be observed and not be known."
Appearing on CNN's ''Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" on Sunday, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice denied knowing if Khan had been cooperating with Pakistani intelligence, but left it unclear where the leak came from: ''I don't know what might have been going on in Pakistan," Rice said. ''I will say this, that we did not, of course, publicly disclose his name."
Blitzer asserted: ''He was disclosed in Washington on background."
Rice replied: ''On background. And the problem is that when you're trying to strike a balance between giving enough information to the public so they know that you're dealing with a specific, credible, different kind of threat than you've dealt with in the past, you're always weighing that against operational considerations. We've tried to strike a balance."
Later in the show, Blitzer said this exchange meant Rice had confirmed that the administration released Khan's name to a reporter on background -- an interpretation repeated in later news accounts. But Sean McCormack, a National Security Council spokesman, said yesterday that Rice did not say the leak came from American officials.
''She was in the middle of making a point and he interrupted her, and she reflexively repeated 'on background,' but she was not confirming it and went on to complete her thought," McCormack said.
Senior intelligence officials gave a background briefing to reporters Aug. 1 after Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced an orange alert for sites in New York, Washington, and Newark. Khan's name does not appear in the transcript.
The day of Ridge's press conference, an intelligence official told the Globe that the information came from an unannounced arrest in Pakistan, but declined to provide the identity of the detained person for fear of revealing a CIA operation. That official, reached again yesterday, said he was referring to Khan at the time.
A CIA official declined to comment on why the government has provided more details about recent terrorist intelligence, and outside analysts said it was difficult to know whether politics played a role.
''The problem that we have today is that the president has made terrorism the central theme of his reelection campaign, which means that every action . . . will be questioned for its politics," said David Heyman, homeland security program director at the Center for International and Strategic Studies.
But several senior intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed dismay at the level of information that has been revealed to the media -- particularly the role that Khan's arrest has played.
''Most of the people I talk to are most shocked by some of the recent details being revealed about Al Qaeda," said one senior CIA analyst who works on terrorism issues.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.