The Cable

The leak that triggered the AP phone probe scandal

One of the curiosities of the Justice Department's extensive probe of the Associated Press's phone records is the role that CIA Director John Brennan played in the original leak incident.

On Monday, the AP announced that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of phone records on more than 20 lines assigned to its journalists -- a transgression its typically staid CEO called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion."

But setting aside the Justice Department's tactics, the rationale behind the original probe is a fascinating tale of espionage, network TV, and media relations, that remains contentious.

According to the news agency's best guess, the AP was targeted by the Justice Department in a leak investigation over a May 7, 2012 story it ran about a foiled terror plot in Yemen. The phone numbers of every reporter and editor on that story were obtained by the Justice Department.

The story was sensitive because it involved the successful penetration of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula by Western spies. (The spy in question inflitrated AQAP, retrieved its latest non-metalic underwear bomb and delivered it to U.S. authorities). But even more importanly, the sensitive operation was reportedly unfinished by the time AP reporters caught wind of it, and had to be cut short before completion. 

As a result, the administration was furious about the leak and pinned the blame squarely on the AP. "The egregious leak here was to the Associated Press," read an official White House statement last May. "The White House fought to prevent this information from being reported and ultimately worked to delay its publication for operational security reasons. No one is more upset than us about this disclosure, and we support efforts to prevent leaks like this which harm our national security."

But here's the thing: The original AP story never mentioned anything about an undercover CIA agent or Western "control" over the operation. It merely stated that "it's not immediately clear what happened to the alleged bomber," leading others to suggest that someone else was responsible for detailing the most sensitive aspect of the story -- that the CIA had someone on the inside. Enter Reuters investigative reporter Mark Hosenball. Last summer, he tracked the evolution of the story minute-by-minute and implicated then-White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan -- a story that played a not-insignificant role in his confirmation hearing to lead the CIA. Here's Hosenball's masterful tick tock:

At about 5:45 p.m. EDT on Monday, May 7, just before the evening newscasts, John Brennan ... held a small, private teleconference to brief former counter-terrorism advisers who have become frequent commentators on TV news shows. According to five people familiar with the call, Brennan stressed that the plot was never a threat to the U.S. public or air safety because Washington had "inside control" over it.

Brennan's comment appears unintentionally to have helped lead to disclosure of the secret at the heart of a joint U.S.-British-Saudi undercover counter-terrorism operation. A few minutes after Brennan's teleconference, on ABC's World News Tonight, Richard Clarke, former chief of counter-terrorism in the Clinton White House and a participant on the Brennan call, said the underwear bomb plot "never came close because they had insider information, insider control."

A few hours later, Clarke, who is a regular consultant to the network, concluded on ABC's Nightline that there was a Western spy or double-agent in on the plot: "The U.S. government is saying it never came close because they had insider information, insider control, which implies that they had somebody on the inside who wasn't going to let it happen." The next day's headlines were filled with news of a U.S. spy planted inside Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who had acquired the latest, non-metallic model of the underwear bomb and handed it over to U.S. authorities.

Importantly, the White House denies Brennan had anything to do with the leak, a point it maintained throughout Brennan's confirmation hearing in January. "Everyone who works with John Brennan knows he is a straight shooter who would never harm national security," then-National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said. "At the White House, John has worked to prevent the publication of information that would harm our national security."

Which gets us to the crux of the issue: No one is saying that Brennan leaked the story to the AP. (The FBI questioned him about that ahead of his confirmation and he vigorously denied any role in the story.)  The allegation is that his "inside control" comment gave enough information for reporters to advance the AP story and reveal the most sensitive aspect of it -- that the CIA had a man on the inside. Little did anyone know that the leak incident would ultimately prompt one of the most far-reaching Justice Department probes on a news organization in history. 

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