The government's not ticked that the Underwear Bomber II ("undie-bomber") plot got out, they're just pissed about the sputtering, messy, and misleading way in which it got out.
The National Journal has a piece on how "New FBI Probe of Bomb Plot Highlights Administration's Tough Stance on Leaks." As evidence of Obama's crackdown on leakers--which, until now, has been primarily a war on whistleblowers--it offers the fact that the FBI has launched a criminal probe to identify the government officials who leaked the undie-bomb plot as
the latest indication of the Obama administration's unrelenting push to find and punish those sharing classified information with the media.
But I distinguish this "leak," which appears to have come from the administration for political gain, from those by whistleblowers trying to expose government wrongdoing--some of whom are my clients mentioned in the National Journal article. In the case of the undie-bomber, the leak appears to be government self-aggrandizement--not a government employee trying to disclose evidence of wrongdoing--at the expense of sources, methods and possibly an undercover intelligence agent's identity.
In the initial Associated Press version (which turns out not to have been the original since the L.A. Times did an earlier version), the Underwear Bomber II ("undie-bomber") plot was initially spun as
[t]he CIA thwarting an ambitious plot by al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen [AQAP] to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner using a bomb with a sophisticated new design around the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden . . . The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought a plane ticket when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said. It's not immediately clear what happened to the alleged bomber.
In the still-evolving story, it turns out however,according to both American and foreign officials, that the "suicide bomber" was actually an intelligence double agent for Saudi Arabia (cooperating with the CIA) who infiltrated AQAP, volunteered for the suicide mission, left Yemen, and delivered the Wonderbromb to the CIA, Saudi and other foreign intelligence agencies.
Making sure that we all know that the CIA was an active participant and not a mere passive observer, here's a leaker divulging sources and methods--White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan:
We're confident that neither the device nor the intended user of this device posed a threat to us . . . We had the device in our control, and we were confident that it was not going to pose a threat to the American public.
(Brennan on ABC's Good Morning America)
This sort of plot is a legitimate government secret: a double agent working inside an al-Qaeda affiliate. Ditto with the gory details of Osama bin Laden's demise. Yet these stories ended up splashed all over the front pages of newspapers worldwide, revealing sources, methods, and undercover intelligence officials identifying information, by "unnamed officials not authorized to speak on the matter" who were obviously engaged in sanctioned leaks.
In contrast, the government’s spectacularly failed case against NSA whistleblower Tom Drake claimed that he allegedly retained allegedly classified information for the purpose of leaking it to Siobhan Gorman, then with the Baltimore Sun. It turned out that he disclosed unclassified information about a failed and wasteful (multi-billion dollar) NSA spy program that compromised Americans’ privacy. FBI translator Shamai Liebowitz pleaded guilty to leaking information to a blogger. Leibowitz made his disclosure because of an all-too-real fear that Israel might strike nuclear facilities in Iran, a move he saw as potentially disastrous. State Department arms expert Steven Kim is accused of leaking to FOX News that North Korea was planning to respond to a U.N. Security Council resolution by setting off another nuclear test--surely of public interest to China and South Korea. And, of course, Army Private Bradley Manning is accused of leaking to WikiLeaks.
Unfortunately, the terms "leaking" and "whistleblowing" are often used synonymously to describe the public disclosure of information that is otherwise secret. But leaking is quite different from blowing the whistle. The difference turns on the substance of the information disclosed. The Whistleblower Protection Act protects the disclosure of information that a government employee reasonably believes evidences fraud, waste, abuse or a danger to public health or safety. But far too often, whistle-blowers are retaliated against, with criminal prosecution being one of the sharpest weapons in the government's arsenal. In the case of the undie-bomber, the leak appears to have aggrandized the government--not tried to disclose evidence of wrongdoing by the government--at the expense of sources, methods and possibly an undercover intelligence agent's identity.
The two should not be confused.
Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Projec, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.