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.

We dashed off a draft of a web story, complete with a sober-sounding rationale that read, in part, “Printing the name of even an overt C.I.A. employee who is, by all accounts, a national hero, is not something we do lightly. But after considerable debate, we concluded that the benefit of telling the story far outweighed the risks. The ease with which we turned up information the agency was supposedly determined to keep classified was in itself an important story … ”

Before hitting “post,” though, we placed a call to Langley and told the receptionist we knew who John was and that we’d like to get a comment from the press officer.

There was a pause. “Can you tell me the first name?” she asked.

We told her.

“Just a moment,” she said, and put us through.

When the AP story hit the wires, John’s heart sank, according to a source familiar with his thinking. Not two weeks before, Director Panetta, now the secretary of defense, had hosted a large reception at C.I.A. headquarters to honor those who’d contributed to the Abbottabad raid. There was no family invited, nor were refreshments served. But in a rare celebratory flourish, a large white tent was erected for the occasion. Addressing some 1,300 attendees, Director Panetta praised the various teams whose efforts over 10 years had resulted in the double-tap heard ’round the world.

“Few can say that they had a hand in an operation that made the world a better place,” Mr. Panetta said. “Getting rid of bin Laden has made this nation and our world a safer place for our children.”

According to the source, John now has cause to wonder if those words apply in his case. By singling him out as the most important figure behind “the greatest counterterrorism success in the history of the C.I.A.,” the article made him and his family terror targets in a way they had never been before.

“I understand the enemy,” the source close to John elaborated darkly. “This article focused attention on one specific individual that they didn’t know about. That sort of thing has great symbolic meaning to them, and for that reason I’m legitimately concerned.”

The Observer wondered whether the story had inspired any resentment from John’s colleagues. Quite the opposite, the source said. “Unanimously, people were coming up and expressing their condolences. This is not what anybody who works at the C.I.A. wants—this kind of attention brought to themselves or their families. The folks who work with him the closest understand the increased risk.”

Still, The Observer couldn’t help wondering: if the C.I.A. didn’t want the AP story (which, to be frank, is a bit of a puff piece) to run in the first place—if, indeed, the whole idea violated the culture of the organization and put a senior analyst at risk—why had so many intelligence officials been so eager to chat up the reporters? Without their willing testimony that John was the greatest, most discerning, generous and unassuming national hero since 24’s long-suffering Chloe, there would have been no story, and John could have continued his duties unmolested and unknown.

We reached out to one of the few named sources in the piece, former deputy director of central intelligence John McLaughlin, now a professor at Johns Hopkins’s Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. A receptionist said he was busy and probably would remain so for several weeks. She suggested we send an email. We did, making sure to drop John’s first name in a parenthetical.

Mr. McLaughlin gave us a call a few minutes later. “I made a mistake,” he said. “It was a lapse in judgment. They called me, I was in a rush and I didn’t think it through. I know him, I think very highly of him. But I shouldn’t have done it. They said they weren’t using his name, but I should have realized it would become a chase to find it.”

He added, “I implore you, do not publish this man’s name.”

Mr. Goldman and Mr. Apuzzo had heard the same plea. They’ve dealt with the issue before and say there’s no hard and fast rule. For instance, the C.I.A. often allows its own employees to refer to covert agents in their memoirs by first names and last initials. In a February exposé, the reporters went so far as to print the first names of clandestine field agents, but that had been a much tougher story, one dealing with possibly criminal actions. “We needed there to be a way for people to be held accountable for grave mistakes,” Mr. Goldman explained.

Unlike those agents, John was an overt employee of the agency, meaning that he lived and worked openly and was free to tell acquaintances where he worked. But the reporters and their editors agreed to the C.I.A.’s request, because “he was just doing his job,” Mr. Goldman explained. They also scrubbed the story of other details that might have made him identifiable. “We don’t say how old he is,” Mr. Goldman said. “We don’t say how tall he is—the guy could have played guard, he could be 5-foot-7. Sure, people are free to guess, but we feel confident that John can sleep at night.”

That might well have been true if John hadn’t appeared in that Situation Room photo. A C.I.A. spokesperson declined to comment on the significance of the photograph. Asked whether the agency had vetted the images before their release by the White House, or whether the press office took any responsibility for the disclosure, he again declined to comment.

For some insight into how such decisions are made, we called Mark Pfeifle. During the Bush administration, Mr. Pfeifle was the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and global outreach. We asked him how a sensitive picture of a senior C.I.A. analyst might have wound up on the White House Flickr feed in the first place.