NEW YORK -- The New York Times reported Monday that an August leak concerning an al Qaeda plot had “undermined U.S. intelligence" by prompting terrorists to change their methods of communicating, a front-page story that some journalists viewed as a swipe at a competitor.
Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted that the Times story “pretty much accuses McClatchy journalists of helping al Qaeda.”
On Aug. 4, McClatchy reported that the decision to close nearly 20 U.S. embassies and issue a major travel advisory was the result of intercepted communications between al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the Yemen-based head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That revelation helped clarify the U.S. government’s decision to close embassies amid a flurry of news reports in which anonymous U.S. officials spoke of a possible terrorist plot without revealing that detail.
Two journalists who cover national security told HuffPost they were stunned by the Monday Times story. The journalists, who did not have permission to comment from their news organizations about a competitor, said the Times story seemed to be rationalizing the paper’s decision in August to withhold information that McClatchy chose to publish.
In the Times story, senior U.S. officials anonymously claimed that news of the Zawahiri interception left the government “scrambling to find news ways” to surveil top al Qaeda leaders.
But U.S. officials have apparently not made that same claim to McClatchy.
“The article in The New York Times this morning is an odd one,” McClatchy Washington bureau chief James Asher said in a statement to HuffPost. “So far, the U.S. government has not contacted us about our initial story to raise any concerns or to ask us about our sourcing.”
While I don’t want to say anything that could compromise our sources, I will tell you that our information was widely known in Yemen. Multiple sources inside and outside of the Yemeni government confirmed our reporting and not one of them told us not to publish the facts.
In addition, even the U.S. government publicly confirmed that it had intercepted communications between high-level al Qaida leaders. These communications were the basis for closing multiple embassies worldwide in early August and for putting Americans on alert.
We believe that if the Yemenis knew that the United States had intercepted conversations between two al Qaida honchos, Americans should as well.
Citing U.S. officials and experts, the Times reported Monday that the leaked al Qaeda plot details in August “caused more immediate damage to American counterterrorism efforts" than documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. (HuffPost looked in June at how government officials claimed the Snowden disclosures had led terrorists to change communications methods, assertions which were not backed up by strong evidence).
The Times' comparison with the Snowden disclosures, and implication they caused some level of damage to national security, is striking given the fact that the Times published new revelations from those leaked documents on Sunday’s front page. Times editors have defended reporting on the Snowden documents despite government concerns.