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Eric Holder AP Scandal: What the DOJ Was After

The Department of Justice came under scrutiny on Monday after the Associated Press revealed that the department had used subpoenas to obtain two months-worth of phone records of its editors and reporters from April and May of 2012. In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, AP CEO and President Gary Pruitt strongly objected to the secret gathering of information by the Obama administration. According to Pruitt, that information included “all such records for, among other phone lines, an AP general phone number in New York City as well as AP bureaus in New York City, Washington, D.C., Hartford, Connecticut, and at the House of Representatives.”

DoJ rules require that all subpoenas seeking records pertaining to news organizations be approved by the attorney general. It was not clear if that occurred in this case.

The AP’s phone records were obtained by the DoJ earlier this year pursuant to the investigation of an apparent leak to the AP in the spring of last year. On May 7, 2012, the AP reported that the CIA had “thwarted an ambitious plot by al-Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen 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 article cited unnamed “officials” as sources.

That same article notes that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and the Department of Homeland Security denied knowing of any “credible” threats against the U.S. These denials were made on April 26, and May 1, respectively.

According to a Reuters report from May 18 of last year, the AP at first agreed to delay publication of the story, but “according to three government officials, a final deal on timing of publication fell apart over the AP's insistence that no U.S. official would respond to the story for one clear hour after its release.” Obama administration officials rejected the request as “untenable,” at which point the AP said it would go public with the story.

However, the AP says at no point did it propose any deals regarding this story. Instead, it says, “The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once government officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot because officials said it no longer endangered national security. The Obama administration, however, continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.”

As the AP was going public that May 7, then-White House counterterrorism adviser (and current CIA director) John Brennan was summoned from a meeting to hold a conference call with security analysts from television news networks in an effort to do damage control.

One of those analysts was counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke. Reuters noted that shortly after his conference call with Brennan, Clarke said on ABC’s World News Tonight, that the would-be bomber "never came close because they had insider information, insider control."

Later that night on ABC’s Frontline, Clarke echoed his earlier remarks.

"The U.S. government is saying it never came close,” he said, “because they had insider information, insider control, which implies that they had somebody on the inside who wasn't going to let it happen.”

Thus, in an effort to allay public concerns about a possible imminent threat, Brennan appears to have indicated or implied the involvement of a U.S. spy. Whether this was his intention is unclear. 

As Brennan was preparing for his conference call with Clarke and the other analysts, the White House told the several agencies to prepare statements and inform the relevant congressional committees.

The next day, various news organizations were widely reporting on the story of how the United States had infiltrated Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, using a double agent posing as a would-be suicide bomber to procure a non-metallic underwear bomb — allegedly made by AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri — and deliver it to U.S. authorities. Al-Asiri is also believed to have made the underwear bomb worn Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who unsuccessfully attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight en route to Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day 2009.

The same Reuters report cites unnamed officials claiming that the AQAP infiltration was shut down weeks early because of the AP’s story. The double agent for the U.S. was able to leave Yemen unscathed.

In the weeks following the AP story, both congressional Democrats and Republicans demanded a crackdown on leaks, with House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers (R- Mich.) saying his committee would formally investigate the issue. However, both the CIA and the Department of Justice said they would not cooperate with any such inquiry.

Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for the appointment of a special counsel to launch an independent inquiry into the leaks. They went as far to suggest that information was being leaked anonymously by administration officials to help the president win reelection.

On May 6, 2012 — the day before the AP went public with its story of the thwarted bomb plot — a suspected U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed two alleged members of AQAP. One of them was identified as Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Quso, a reported top Al Qaeda operative on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for alleged involvement in the 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing. 

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