How a White House Flickr Fail Outed Bin Laden Hunter 'CIA John'

What do we know and why do we know it? The story behind the revelation of a top spy hunter's identity and why we decided not to publish it.

diptych e1310502038412 How a White House Flickr Fail Outed Bin Laden Hunter 'CIA John'

The Man in the Yellow Tie, with Clinton and Panetta, and in a college yearbook photo.

Anyone who’s ever logged in to a social network while in a jubilant, possibly intoxicated frame of mind knows the dangers. Sometimes you share something you should maybe keep to yourself, or you forget to check your privacy settings, or you show off a little too much skin.

That’s more or less what the U.S. government appears to have done in the heady moments after dumping whatever was left of Osama bin Laden into the churning waters of the North Arabian Sea.

Getting him had taken 10 years, billions of dollars and the dogged work of an unnamed senior intelligence analyst in the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Center.

The Associated Press brought the mysterious analyst’s role to light on July 5, after which a mere two days elapsed before The Observer managed to learn the identity of this super spy, type it into Google and track the poor guy to a quiet subdivision in Northern Virginia.

Just how a reporter—one whose largest scoop to date involved the romantic indiscretions of a pair of Hollywood actors—gained possession of a nugget of intelligence that a senior U.S. official told us would be “extremely damaging” if publicly revealed, is either the tale of a carefully orchestrated public relations gambit designed to christen a new American hero, or that of a colossal governmental blunder—or perhaps a bit of both.

It began little more than a week ago, when the Associated Press published an adulatory profile a mysterious C.I.A. analyst, entitled “The Man Who Hunted Osama Bin Laden.”

In the breathless prose of a Jerry Bruckheimer trailer, reporters Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo introduced the shadowy figure who’d tracked bin Laden nearly since the day the towers fell. “In the hunt for the world’s most-wanted terrorist, there may have been no one more important,” they wrote.

The story quoted a number of “current and former intelligence officials,” including John E. McLaughlin, the former deputy director of Central Intelligence, all of whom heaped praise on their steadfast colleague. But at the C.I.A.’s request, the piece did not identify the man by name “so that he would not become a target for retribution.” Instead, Mr. Goldman and Mr. Apuzzo wrote, “Call him John, his middle name.”

“They made a compelling case that even though he wasn’t under cover, they didn’t want to put a target on his back,” Mr. Apuzzo explained of his discussions with the C.I.A. “So we wrote it in a way that people would not be able to identify who he was.”

Well, not exactly. Because the story also dangled a more tantalizing clue—noting that John was standing “just outside the frame” in the “now-famous photograph” of the Obama national security team huddled around a conference table in the Situation Room, anxiously watching a TV monitor as the daring raid on bin Laden’s compound unfolded.

That was enough for John Young of, an intelligence blog dedicated to exposing government secrets. About nine hours after reading the AP piece, Mr. Young posted a story that appeared to unmask the master terrorist hunter. And he did it with the sort of simple deductive reasoning that wouldn’t be out of place in a Miss Marple novel. It seems that although the man’s face was cropped out of the famous Situation Room photo, his pale yellow necktie was not. He also appeared to be unusually tall. The White House, as part of an all-out effort to trumpet its signature intelligence triumph, had released a number of photos on that day to media outlets around the world. Mr. Young simply checked the administration’s Flickr feed for shots of a man with the same build and taste in neckwear.

And there he was.

Indeed, he turned up again in a shot taken two days later, accompanying then-C.I.A. director Leon Panetta to a closed-door briefing of Congress. Curiously, he was even wearing the same tie. (To be fair, it was before Father’s Day.)

“It was a no-brainer to figure this out,” Mr. Young told The Observer, speaking in a crusty drawl that recalled the late William S. Burroughs.

Mr. Young’s item was intriguing, but not conclusive. And it failed to name the arch-spook, though Mr. Young later noted, “If I had the name, I’d put it up. I’m an absolutist.”

Once the photo was out there, of course, it was only a matter of time. But how little time was surprising. Within a day, The Observer happened to mention the Cryptome story while out with some friends. An acquaintance volunteered that he recognized the man in the photo and proceeded to put a name to the face.

A few web searches turned up details of the man’s personal life. In college, he’d played basketball. No superstar by any means—he was mostly a practice player—he’d been aggressive enough to catch the eye of the team’s coach, who later spoke glowingly of John’s unusual shooting style.

The Observer also stumbled across the man’s college G.P.A. (a respectable 3.5). We grabbed his address on Lexis/Nexis and gazed down on his home via Google Maps. We checked out his children’s school and noted that his wife recently helped coordinate the school fair. We read about his son’s sports exploits, and observed with a touch of conspiratorial frisson that his father is an expert in the work of Leo Strauss, one of the patron saints of Bush-era neoconservatism.