Saturday, August 07, 2004

The disclosure of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan 

As all blog readers know, the papers have been full of stories of the huge number of arrests of leading Al-Qaeda figures during the past week. Many of these arrests appear to be the result of grabbing an Al-Qaeda computer geek, one Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, who was apparently cooperating with investigators. All of this looks like a victory in the war on terror, until one considers this story from Reuters, in which a slew of anti-terrorism "experts" allege that the entire operation was compromised when Khan's name leaked to the press.
The revelation that a mole within al Qaeda was exposed after Washington launched its "orange alert" this month has shocked security experts, who say the outing of the source may have set back the war on terror.

Reuters learned from Pakistani intelligence sources on Friday that computer expert Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, arrested secretly in July, was working under cover to help the authorities track down al Qaeda militants in Britain and the United States when his name appeared in U.S. newspapers.

"After his capture he admitted being an al Qaeda member and agreed to send e-mails to his contacts," a Pakistani intelligence source told Reuters. "He sent encoded e-mails and received encoded replies. He's a great hacker and even the U.S. agents said he was a computer whiz."

Last Sunday, U.S. officials told reporters that someone held secretly by Pakistan was the source of the bulk of the information justifying the alert. The New York Times obtained Khan's name independently, and U.S. officials confirmed it when it appeared in the paper the next morning.

If the Reuters article is true, then The New York Times has done a tremendous disservice to the American people. Will anybody in the media call them out?

Beyond the Times, who is responsible for this leak? A Bush Administration official seeking political advantage, a Pakistani official trying to signal Al-Qaeda, or some fool eager to show off knowledge to a reporter? This article, via the Associated Press, seems to suggest that the leak came from Pakistan:
Both Ghailani and Khan are cooperating with investigators, a Pakistani official said Saturday, speaking on condition of anonymity. Khan agreed to send e-mails after his capture to al-Qaida members as part of a sting operation, and some of the recipients responded by e-mail, the official said.

Is it unreasonable to wonder whether the Pakistani official who leaked Khan's name is working with jihadists, or sympathetic to them, and knew that the American press would reveal Khan's name and the fact of his cooperation, thereby compromising his value? Al-Qaeda is obviously now aware that Khan is in custody, and will no longer reply to his emails.

But I ask again: Who is going to call out the Times for the early publication of Khan's name? Unless Reuters is all wrong, surely the Times understood the consequences. But selling papers is, of course, more important than defeating Al-Qaeda.

Sometimes I think that anybody who speaks to a reporter for any reason at all is a fool.

UPDATE (9:15 pm 8-8-04): The press in Pakistan is pointing to the Bush Administration as the source of the leak, the consequences of which do indeed sound horrendous. But again, why is it just fine for the Times to publish this guy's name? Did the "senior administration official" behind the leak understand that the reporter would spill the name? And didn't the Times editorial staff care about the consequences, or follow up? Or was this an unbelievably political and thoughtless act on the part of the Bush White House?


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