The exposure of a planned airline bombing and the counterterrorism mission that foiled al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's (AQAP) plot spawned two ongoing reactions in Washington.
The first track leads to a supposedly irrefutable conclusion: U.S. operations in Yemen are progressing in their mission to contain AQAP. Having successfully dropped Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime for his more supportive and stable vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, the Obama administration has quickly ramped up its clandestine operations to semi-open levels. The White House would publicly admit to expansion of drone targets in early May, roughly one year after the America's fleet dove into southern Yemen due to the revolution and Saleh's manipulation of his forces. Around the same time that Americans learned of a non-plot against them, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby also told reporters that the U.S. had begun "reintroducing" trainers into the country.
Never-mind that these operations continued throughout Yemen's revolution, or that AQAP has expanded its ranks and territory during this period of time. Why change course if the White House can sell its policy to an uninformed American populace: "It is indicative of the kind of work that our intelligence and counterterrorism services are performing regularly to counter the threat posed by al Qaeda in general, and AQAP in particular."
Saudi Arabia's Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah and Britain's MI-6 reportedly led the operation after filling AQAP's need for a Saudi holding Western passport.
With the dust kicked up from anonymous Saudi spy still whirling through the global information sphere, a second message of internal criticism eventually began to compete for media attention. A handful of public officials involved with U.S. intelligence committees were the first responders to the political scene, aiming their rhetorical attacks at the leaker (or leakers) who outed the Saudi spy. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate's Select Committee On Intelligence, told the Associated Press that she thought the leak "has to be prosecuted," an informal motion seconded by New York Representative Peter King.
"The FBI has to do a full and complete investigation," the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee told CNN, "because this really is criminal in the literal sense of the word to leak out this type of sensitive, classified information on really almost unparalleled penetration of the enemy."
On Wednesday FBI director Robert S. Mueller acquiesced to these demands, telling the Senate Judiciary Committee, "We have initiated an investigation into this leak." However this secondary message, being deceptively quiet, has left the first message as the administration's dominant narrative in Yemen. Each plot is exploited as probable cause to expand U.S. military operations in the country, motivating the White House to lead its Yemeni policy with counterterrorism achievements. Thus the FBI is unlikely to take action because many "leakers" dwell at Washington's highest levels of authority. Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, agreed with this source when he told CBS's “Face the Nation" that the White House engaged in “premature chest-thumping."
Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, rejected Congressman Rogers’s accusation as “absolutely false." He argued that the White House and C.I.A. "worked together to try and prevent publication of this damaging leak." Yet the administration and various U.S. officials ran with the story for days before pulling on the reigns and going into leak-mode. Numerous anonymous officials went on record to describe the plot; the Associated Press had its choice of quotes to pick through. Speaking to NBC's "Today" show, ABC's "Good Morning America" and CBS's "This Morning," counterterrorism coordinator John Brennan said that AQAP's latest experimental bomb was seized as a result of "very close cooperation with our international partners." After the existence of a Saudi double-agent was confirmed, the FBI released a statement describing a "device is very similar to IEDs that have been used previously by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in attempted terrorist attacks, including against aircraft and for targeted assassinations."
Congressmen King offered one of the first quotes on the mysterious Saudi: "We don't have to worry about him any more.”
The individual act of penetrating AQAP's external operational network undoubtably struck an embarrassing blow to the group's leadership. Everything from this point has run downhill. The need to publicize AQAP's threats has compromised future attempts to infiltrate its ranks, while Yemenis generally continue to fear an expansion of U.S. counterterrorism missions. Ironically, the underwear bomb currently being dissected by the FBI has been put to work in a similar AQAP role: psychological warfare against the American people.
This disorganization and disinformation is reflected in the narrow-minded counterterrorism sweeping across Yemen's southlands.