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.

“The Obama White House has increased dramatically the use of digital media, so there’s a much more robust photo collection on Flickr than we had,” he said, adding that in his experience, “any photograph that would go on the White House website was carefully scrutinized to make sure there wasn’t a way to zoom in and, say, examine a document on the table using some advanced technology. Especially in a sensitive area like the Situation Room. Any question about someone in a photo would have been raised to the N.S.C. staff, whose job would have been to I.D. those in the picture and stop any that raised questions.”

As to the photo of John taken two days later, he noted, “C.I.A. shouldn’t have had anyone but the director and security detail in that photo on Capitol Hill.” He called it an example of “bad photo op management.”

Mr. Pfeifle added, “The Obama White House should be given credit for trying to bring the public into the process, but there’s also a big, unfortunate downside.”

Did the White House blow it, stumbling into the sort of social media speed bump that has undone so many partying teenagers? Was it all a case of Spooks Gone Wild, brought on by the giddy emotional rush of having finally plugged “Geronimo”? The White House press office had no comment.

How about John? Wouldn’t he know better than to stand there behind Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta while the official White House photographer snapped away? It was impossible to ask. Since the C.I.A. refused to acknowledge that the tall man in the picture was, in fact, John, they couldn’t very well let him respond to the question.

According to Jessica Stern, a lecturer at Harvard and an expert on terrorism, “Somebody either made an incredibly stupid mistake here, or they wanted him to be revealed. I think they probably made a stupid mistake.”

To Mr. Young, an architect and independent researcher, the latter theory seemed more likely. “It has all the hallmarks of a deliberate disclosure,” he said. “This was a story filled with clues. The thing about ‘just outside the picture’ was a dead giveaway that they wanted this to happen.”

As to the photo, Mr. Young said, “Putting this guy in the picture was no accident. To show him directly behind Panetta? I think they wanted to reward this guy’s hard work and get some favorable publicity and it worked. It’s one of the few successes they can crow about.”

While casting doubt on that theory, Mr. Pfeifle, now a communications adviser in Washington, acknowledged that there was a strong motivation within the agency to seek out positive publicity. “The individuals at the C.I.A. do such an extensive amount of things that make our country safer every day, that are never reported about, and for some individuals and entities, that’s a difficult thing—when they see stories of heroism and success that emanate from other government agencies.”

In other words, SEALs aren’t the only ones who like to clap their flippers now and again.

Mr. Pfeifle added that sometimes disclosures are generated by factions within a given agency, who might have competing agendas. “There’s always the impulse for the intelligence bureaucracy to try to shape public perception, whether for congressional funding or to achieve a certain policy outcome,” he explained. “That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s coming from the top down. It could be one area within a bureaucracy that wants to push something. And the people who do communications will often see that and freak out a bit.”

Whether or not the “C.I.A. John” Affair was orchestrated on some level, it seemed there was in fact a little freaking out going on in the halls of Langley. Two days after we began our reporting, a U.S. government official told The Observer that John’s cover status had changed. Although he had long been, as the AP profile noted, an overt agent, he had since been designated covert.

This was interesting. The switch had happened “early this month,” the official said, declining to be more specific. Since only five days had elapsed between the publication of the AP story and this new revelation, it seemed fair to assume that John had gone “under cover” after The Observer contacted the agency.

This news sent us running to the web again, parsing the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Adopted in 1982, the act makes it a federal crime “to intentionally reveal the identity of an agent whom one knows to be in … certain covert roles with a U.S. intelligence agency,” according to Wikipedia. The law applies specifically to people with authorized access to this information, however, which leaves us in the clear.

And of course, we had another easy out. If we were merely to publish the name of the man in the photo—a man whom the C.I.A. will not confirm is actually the guy in the AP article—we would not knowingly be burning a covert agent.

Lecturer Stern thought we might want to tread carefully. In her estimation, John could be in serious danger if exposed, not from al-Qaeda, necessarily, but from rogue elements of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the I.S.I., who have made common cause with al-Qaeda and have access to greater resources, or by a lone-wolf type, poring over issues of Inspire magazine online and looking to make his mark.

“It’s an incredible coup for your paper, but it’s also a risk,” she said. “I would urge you to contact your lawyer, and then I would either consult your conscience or consult your rabbi.”

Still, this all seemed a bit fishy. Was it really up to a small weekly newspaper to protect the life of a top terrorist hunter, especially when so many of his colleagues were walking around openly and seemed to be adequately protected from harm?