The Magazine

Interrogate Brennan

Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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On April 30, 2012, Brennan delivered a speech at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. His main theme was that President Obama had encouraged the national security team to be more transparent when it comes to the most controversial issues of the day. “A few months after taking office,” Brennan said, “the president traveled to the National Archives, where he discussed how national security requires a delicate balance between secrecy and transparency.” Obama “pledged to share as much information as possible with the American people ‘so that they can make informed judgments and hold us accountable,’ ” Brennan continued. Obama “has consistently encouraged those of us on his national security team to be as open and candid as possible as well.”

There is much to inquire about concerning Brennan’s attempts to maintain this “balance between secrecy and transparency.” 

The press has already reported on Brennan’s possible role in various national security leaks. In May 2012, a U.S. official disclosed to journalists that a mole within Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the Obama administration describes as al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate, had disrupted a nascent plot to blow up an airliner. AQAP had already attempted to bring down a Detroit-bound airplane on Christmas Day 2009 and two cargo planes the following year. AQAP has, therefore, shown its keen interest in attacking the airline industry. This makes the leak of a secret agent inside AQAP’s ranks especially troubling.

Mark Hosenball of Reuters first reported that the night before news of the mole broke, Brennan held a teleconference with “former counterterrorism advisers who have become frequent commentators on TV news shows.” During the conversation, Brennan downplayed the seriousness of the plot, saying that the United States had “inside control” over it. A few minutes later, one of the call’s participants, former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, made the same claim during an appearance on ABC’s World News Tonight. Clarke concluded during another appearance on ABC a few hours later that the United States “had somebody on the inside who wasn’t going to let it happen.” Reuters reported: “The next day’s headlines were filled with news of a U.S. spy planted inside Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who had acquired the latest, nonmetallic model of the underwear bomb and handed it over to U.S. authorities.”

The White House, of course, denies that classified information was divulged during the teleconference and says it is “ridiculous” to suspect Brennan was involved in the leak. “White House officials and others on the call insist that Brennan disclosed no classified information during that conference call and chose his words carefully to avoid doing so,” Reuters reported. 

But other than a secret agent within AQAP’s ranks, what could “inside control” possibly mean? Clarke easily made the connection. If Brennan did not leak this information to the press, who did? Does he know? Did anyone leak this intelligence at the behest of Brennan? 

Eight months have passed since the leak, and we still don’t know the answers. That is hardly a model of transparency. Meanwhile, the British were heavily involved in the operation and have lamented that it had to be terminated early. Authorities were hoping to collect additional intelligence.

The senators will undoubtedly probe this and other leaks. But they should focus on the other side of this coin as well: transparency. 

The existence of a spy inside AQAP is, quite obviously, the type of secret the U.S. government should keep. But the government also routinely classifies information unnecessarily. As a result, information that should be made public isn’t.

During his Wilson Center speech, for instance, Brennan cited the documents captured in Osama bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Brennan said that the al Qaeda master’s files show al Qaeda “is losing badly,” “continue[s] to struggle to communicate with subordinates and affiliates,” and is “struggling to attract new recruits.” What’s more, “some members are giving up and returning home, no doubt aware that this is a fight they will never win.” 

Brennan also announced that some of the Abbottabad documents would be released online a few days later by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, and indeed some were. In all, 17 documents were declassified and released. Press accounts reveal that 6,000 or so documents had been translated by that point. This means that well under 1 percent of the cache was made available to the public.

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