The chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee expressed dismay that someone leaked information about a mole who infiltrated al Qaeda and helped foil a plot to blow up a U.S.-bound plane.
“It’s really, to me, unfortunate that this has gotten out, because this could really interfere with operations overseas,” Rep. Peter King of New York told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday. “My understanding is a major investigation is going to be launched because of this.”
The mole, who volunteered as a suicide bomber for the terrorist group, was actually working as an intelligence agent for Saudi Arabia, a source in the region familiar with the operation told CNN.
The man left Yemen, traveled through the United Arab Emirates and gave the bomb and information about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to the CIA, Saudi intelligence and other foreign intelligence agencies, the source said.
The agent works for Saudi intelligence, which has cooperated with the CIA for years, the source said.
“Indeed, we always were the ones managing him,” the source told CNN.
The account of what happened was first reported by The New York Times on Tuesday.
Officials cited by the Times would not identify the man, but said he is safe in Saudi Arabia.
The bomb, which was intended to pass undetected through airport security, was given to the FBI, which was poring over it, the newspaper reported.
Citing a senior American official, the Times described the device as sewn into “custom fit” underwear and able to be detonated in two ways. That redundancy may have been to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2009 when an attempt to blow up a jet over Detroit failed because the bomb did not detonate.
The primary charge in the latest device was a high-grade military explosive that the Times, quoting an official, said “undoubtedly would have brought down an aircraft.”
A senior administration official told CNN that officials were debating whether to release photographs of the device to law enforcement agencies.
On one side of the argument, Transportation Safety Administration screeners and law enforcement might more easily identify any similar devices made as part of the same plot, the official said.
But officials were reluctant to do so out of concern that the photographs would be leaked to the news media and that the would-be bombers would learn what law enforcement knows — and might not know — about the bomb’s workings.
The news of the mole might explain comments made earlier Tuesday by John Brennan, the chief White House counterterrorism adviser, who told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that U.S. officials were confident they were in control of the situation leading up to the seizure of the improvised explosive device, or IED.
Brennan said that officials believe redundant security systems would have prevented any attempt at bombing a flight from succeeding, but analysts were studying the device to see whether security procedures should be adjusted.
“We’re trying to make sure that we take the measures that we need to prevent any other type of IED, similarly constructed, from getting through security procedures,” Brennan said.
The device investigators were studying is more sophisticated than previous ones and represents a disconcerting advance in al Qaeda bomb-making techniques, officials said Tuesday.
“It is a device similar to the underwear bomber of 2009, but an evolution to that,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.
The device never posed an immediate danger to air travel or the United States, she said.
But lawmakers said more such devices may exist, and House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, said the release of information about the device could complicate an effort to seal the long-term threat.
“If something bad happens because it was leaked too early, that’s a catastrophe and it’s also a crime,” Rogers told CNN.
News about the device became public on Monday, about two weeks after U.S. intelligence agents thwarted the plot after receiving a tip from Saudi Arabia, a source familiar with the operation said.
Information from the mole proved key to a CIA drone strike Sunday in Yemen that killed Fahd al Quso, 37, a senior operative of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al Quso was a suspect in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. Western officials describe AQAP as al Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliate.
Former FBI special agent Ali Soufan, who interrogated al Quso for his role in the Cole bombing, called the coordinated seizure of the bomb and attack on al Quso a “really a brilliant operation.”
“This is as good as it gets in intelligence operations,” he said. “Now we now what al Qaeda’s planning to do.”
Rogers said the device underscores al Qaeda’s continuing efforts to carry out terrorist attacks.
“This is a device that was more sophisticated, had some fail-safes built into it, and it was something that concerns us because it tells us that they brought some very capable people together to build something,” he said.
A Department of Homeland Security spokesman said authorities have “no specific, credible information regarding an active terrorist plot against the U.S. at this time.”
AQAP has been responsible for two of the most audacious attempts to target the United States in recent years: the attempted Christmas 2009 bombing and a 2010 attempt to load bombs hidden inside printer cartridges onto cargo planes headed for Chicago. In both cases, U.S. authorities believe the bombs were built by Ibrahim al-Asiri. Both devices contained PETN, a white, powdery explosive that conventional single-beam X-ray machines are rarely able to detect.
“We are not ready to say the threat stream is over,” a U.S. official told CNN. “We believe external plotting continues.”
The investigation involves a number of countries and is ongoing, King said on CNN’s “Starting Point.”
Yemen’s government has been fighting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for years with mixed results.
Yemeni authorities appeared miffed by the revelations of the foiled plot, saying that Washington had shared no information with them.
“Yemen has been a key ally to the United States when it comes to fighting terror and cooperates in every way possible,” said a senior intelligence official in Yemen who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation. “It’s very sad to know that the United States did not share such critical intelligence information with Yemen.”