Exclusive: Did White House “spin” tip a covert op?
By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House efforts to soft-pedal the danger from a new “underwear bomb” plot emanating from Yemen may have inadvertently broken the news they needed most to contain.
At about 5:45 p.m. EDT on Monday, May 7, just before the evening newscasts, John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top White House adviser on counter-terrorism, 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.
At stake was an operation that could not have been more sensitive — the successful penetration by Western spies of AQAP, al Qaeda’s most creative and lethal affiliate. As a result of leaks, the undercover operation had to be shut down.