The suspicious leaks behind the terrorism alert

A protester holds a mock bugging device during a demonstration against the NSA in Frankfurt, Germany, on July 27.
(Image credit: REUTERS/ Kai Pfaffenbach)

Even If Edward Snowden's leaks have caused irreparable harm to national security, those of us without security clearances only have the government's word to take for it. But this week's disclosure that a specific conference call between al Qaeda leaders was detected and recorded by the National Security Agency is precisely the sort of information that should not be in the public domain until the threat has passed, precisely the sort of secret that almost no one has a problem with the government keeping.

If it's true that al Qaeda leaders change their communication tactics to find a way around the NSA dragnet, they sure as hell are going to avoid the same circuits that somehow tapped this conference call. They're going to do it before the immediate threat has passed, too, meaning that the NSA will lose a real-time source of intelligence that might have provided further information about the target of the planned attack. Initially, several news outlets reported simply that the U.S. had detected "chatter" about an attack. Then, McClatchy added some detail, reporting the names of several al Qaeda leaders, including Nasser al-Wuhayshi, who participated in the discussion. Then, Eli Lake reported that the discussions had taken place on a specific conference call. (See Marcy Wheeler's timeline for more.)

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