THE BLOG
10/01/2013 09:26 am ET Updated Dec 01, 2013

Yemen Expert Calls Premise Of NY Times Leak Story 'Laughable'

On Monday afternoon, James Asher, the Washington bureau chief for McClatchy, described a front-page New York Times report as "odd."

That evening, a Yemen expert described the premise of the Times story -- that an August leak regarding an Al Qaeda plot undermined U.S. intelligence-gathering -- as "laughable."

The leak in question took place during an early August media frenzy over the closing of 19 embassies. On Aug. 4, McClatchy reported that the decision was prompted by intercepted communications between al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and Yemen-based AQAP head Nasir al Wuhayshi. McClatchy defended publishing that detail, which other outlets, including the Times, held back at the government's request. The Times had reported on an intercept involving "senior operatives of Al Qaeda," but withheld the identities.

Now eight weeks later, anonymous U.S. officials told the Times that the leak has led terrorists to changes methods of communicating, a claim officials made a couple of months earlier following disclosures from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Asher pushed back on the suggestion that the leak damaged national security by telling HuffPost on Monday afternoon that the U.S. government never raised concerns following the Aug. 4 story and that "multiple sources inside and outside of the Yemeni government confirmed our reporting and not one of them told us not to publish the facts."

On Monday night, McClatchy followed up with its own report that also calls into question officials' claims made in the Times report.

[Asher's] claim was backed Monday by Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert and the author of "The Last Refuge," a book on al Qaida in Yemen. Johnsen said that he'd been told before the McClatchy report that Zawahiri and Wuhayshi were the two men who'd been intercepted and that many people in Yemen knew the details of the communication. Johnsen had made a similar statement to McClatchy in early August.

"The idea that the identities of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri are responsible for the difficulties the U.S. is having in tracking al Qaida and AQAP is laughable," Johnsen said Monday, referring to the Yemen al Qaida affiliate by its initials. "The U.S. publicly closed 19 embassies, the participation of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri was well known in Yemen. I was told about it prior to McClatchy publishing it. And once the leaks start from the U.S. government they can be hard to stop or to control."

It was unclear whether the Obama administration is investigating the source of leaks about the communications intercept . The FBI declined to comment, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not respond to a request for comment. The Times, which did not contact McClatchy for comment, said that it would have nothing to say.