By Audrey Hudson
Leaked details of an al-Qaida plot against U.S. embassies in August caused more damage to government counterterrorism efforts than all of the documents leaked by Edward Snowden, intelligence officials claim.
Now the nation’s spy agencies are scrambling to find new ways to spy on senior members of the international terror group, The New York Times reported.
Al-Qaida’s top leaders have changed their methods of communication since McClatchy reported that conversations about the planned attack had been intercepted and named the terrorist leaders under surveillance, the Times said.
“It was something that was immediate, direct, and involved specific people on specific communications about specific events,” a senior American official said of the exchange between the Qaida leaders.
By comparison, the information leaked by Snowden, a former National Security Advisor employee, was more in-depth “and it will take a lot of time to understand,” the official said.
Nearly 20 U.S. embassies and consulates were closed for a week based on the information and perceived threat, which initially was reported by the Times, CNN, and McClatchy.
McClatchy, however, was the only news outlet to disclose that the intercepted conversations were between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of Al Qaida, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, head of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Times said it withheld that crucial piece of information at the government’s request.
McClatchy Washington bureau chief James Asher defended the decision to publish the identify of the terrorist plotters and said it was based on reports from Yemen where the details were “common knowledge.”
“Our story was based on reporting in Yemen and we did not contact the administration to ask permission to use the information,” Asher told The Huffington Post.
“It is not unusual for CNN or the NYT to agree not to publish something because the White House asked them. And frankly, our democracy isn’t well served when journalists agree to censor their work,” Asher added.
Unidentified intelligence officials now tell the New York Times the leak resulted in a sharp decrease in intelligence gathering, as well as in the quality of the communications.
The National Security Agency has spent billions of dollars over the last decade on clandestine eavesdropping operations.
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