The closure of nearly two dozen U.S. embassies over the weekend came after the U.S. government intercepted communications between Ayman al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda, and Nasir al Wuhayshi, the leader of the terror group’s most dangerous affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to reports from McClatchy news service and the New York Times.
There are two pieces of news there. The reason for the shuttering the embassies is interesting, of course. But the far more significant development is the disclosure of the fact that the U.S. government intercepted communications that included some of those to or from Zawahiri. It seems clear that however Zawahiri and Wuhayshi were communicating, they won’t likely be in touch the same way again. As a result, the United States stands to lose access to realtime intelligence from one or both of these top al Qaeda leaders.
In a story published Sunday, McClatchy reported on the source of the intelligence. “An official who had been briefed on the matter in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, said the embassy closings and travel advisory were the result of an intercepted communication between Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri in which Zawahiri gave ‘clear orders’ to al-Wuhaysi, who was recently named al Qaida's general manager, to carry out an attack. The official, however, said he could not divulge details of the plot.”
In a story posted Monday, the New York Times reported much the same information and revealed that the paper had initially withheld details of the intercepts.
In an article posted on the web on Friday and published on Saturday, the identities of the Qaeda leaders whose conversations were intercepted were witheld by the New York Times at the request of senior American intelligence officials. The names were disclosed Sunday by McClatchy Newspapers, and after the government became aware of the article, it dropped its objections to the Times’s publishing the same information.
The decision to close the embassies has proven controversial, with some critics alleging that the U.S. has assumed a defensive posture not warranted by the intelligence – or at least what's publicly known of it – and others wondering whether the far-reaching action is being used to justify the continuation of the NSA programs much in the news over the past several weeks. Many of the embassy closings have been extended and U.S. intelligence officials insist that the threat is real and immediate.
Whatever comes of these warnings, and we downplay them are our peril, the disclosure of the fact that the U.S. government issued them because of intercepted communications between al Qaeda leaders necessarily makes us less secure.