Is this a damaging leak? Sure sounded like it when CNN tweeted this out last night:
— OutFrontCNN (@OutFrontCNN) August 13, 2013
“Breaks code” makes it sound like Al Qaeda’s sending encrypted messages (e.g., “K&b4Z*EN” for “attack”) and the NSA’s secretly deciphering them with some sort of jihadi Enigma machine. That’s not what’s happening — I think. Here’s what CNN’s article says:
The intercepted al Qaeda communications that sparked the closure of U.S. embassies in the Middle East and North Africa contained specific words that American intelligence interpreted as a coded message for what they believed signaled a potentially imminent attack, CNN has learned…
A U.S. official declined to discuss specific code words on the intercepts but told CNN “there was a sense of imminence, a sense of the overall area at risk and the known actors. There was great concern.”
Members of Congress have indicated that National Security Agency surveillance programs played a role in intercepting and monitoring recent al Qaeda communications.
Code words, not code. They didn’t break a mathematically encrypted cipher, they just interpreted certain phrases used in Al Qaeda’s communications as a signal that an attack was coming. Not “K&b4Z*EN,” in other words, but “The eagle flies at midnight.” They’ve been doing that for years and AQ surely knows it. That’s how the feds busted the New York City subway plot four years ago:
More likely, the break in that case came when British police busted a ring of alleged terrorists in April 2009. A search of a computer belonging to one of the suspects produced an email address that was linked to an al Qaeda operative. A court order was obtained for surveillance of that particular address, and investigators took note of a message that they traced to a man in Colorado named Mohammed Wali Zazi. The message contained a line that jumped out, given that “wedding” is an al Qaeda code word for an attack dating back to 9/11.
“The marriage is ready.”
Presumably they’re not still using “wedding” as code for an attack (although they were, very stupidly, apparently still using it eight years after 9/11), but context is everything here. If you’re an NSA analyst reading messages between Al Qaeda numbers one and two and one of them says, for example, “Preparations for the banquet are complete,” your antenna’s going to go up. That is to say, the fact that some intel source is whispering to CNN about this doesn’t necessarily mean that the NSA has a copy of Al Qaeda’s “jihadi code words” dictionary; it may just mean that they intuited from the unusual nature of the communications that any references to an impending event must be code for an attack. What you may have here is less a real leak than some intel source bragging on an otherwise mundane bit of analysis in order to boost the NSA’s reputation after it’s taken a hit.
If they want to brag about something, they should brag about this — assuming the prominence of the targets isn’t also being overstated for publicity reasons. Exit question via the Daily Caller: Any word yet from Eric Holder on whether he’ll be investigating the truly damaging leak about U.S. intelligence infiltrating Al Qaeda’s online “conference call”? That information’s so sensitive, it must have come from someone near the top of the intel food chain. Very dangerous to national security, and yet nothing but silence so far from the DOJ. Go figure that yet another leak showcasing Team Obama’s jihadi-busting prowess isn’t being vigorously pursued.