The U.S. dodged another terrorist bullet when a would-be "underwear bomber" turned out to be a double agent. The news became public this week after rumors had circulated in April that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a Yemini-based group that is now the chief terrorist threat against the U.S., had been planning a spectacular attack to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden last May 2.
At first, the White House and other administration sources played down the rumors, saying that there was no credible information that an attack was being planned. Then some briefers modified their answers to suggest that America had not been in imminent danger. By Monday, word had leaked out that an attack was in the works but had been thwarted because the bomber was a double agent.
It's great that AQAP failed in its attempt to strike the United States or down one of our domestic airlines. What is not so great is that people inside the administration felt it necessary to share what they knew about the operation with the press. When it comes to covert activity, the less the public knows, the better.
It's hard to know if these leaks were politically motivated -- though the timing seems ripe for the president to gain some advantage for being tough on terrorism during an election year. But it may be simply that some people just can't keep their mouths shut. Unfortunately, in this case, they have clearly put lives at risk and may make it far more difficult to infiltrate AQAP and other groups in the future. Ultimately, this will mean that these groups may someday succeed in killing Americans, as the 9/11 hijackers did.
The press accounts detailing the operation have been stunningly exhaustive. The bomber is reported to have been a Saudi with travel documents that would have allowed him to board a U.S.-bound plane. He is described as having infiltrated AQAP in a low level position, perhaps after being detained in Saudi Arabia on suspicion of terrorist ties and then turned to serve as a Saudi agent.
We also know from press reports that the operation was primarily a Saudi one, run by Saudi security agents in cooperation with the CIA. We know the double agent already had the bomb in his possession and details of the bomb parts have been reported in news accounts.
The components apparently consisted of using a special kind of underwear and non-metallic explosives that the plotters thought would pass undetected though airport detection devices. And, the sources revealed that the bomb had a backup detonator in case the first failed as it did in the foiled Christmas Day bomb attempt over Detroit in 2009.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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