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 Cryptome.org, 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.
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.
“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?
As Mr. Goldman of the AP put it, “John’s no more at risk than McRaven, the guy who ordered in SEAL Team 6. He’s no more at risk than Morell, the deputy director of the C.I.A., or Panetta himself. Or what about Cofer Black, Jose Rodriguez, Bob Grenier or any other number of people whose names are out there?”
That said, there was, of course, some risk. How about the revenge-seeking, ax-wielding fanatic who targeted a Danish cartoonist for his images of Muhammed? Or Aimal Kasi, who in 1993 had walked along a line of cars on Chain Bridge Road as they waited to enter C.I.A. headquarters, and begun methodically picking off drivers, killing two employees and wounding three others?
If we could find the schedule for John’s son’s games, anyone could.
In the end, it was suggested that we might want to talk to some of John’s associates, off the record. That is, if we agreed not to print John’s name, even his first name.
We took the deal. The name was of no consequence to us. Moreover, the question seemed worth asking—and we were suddenly in a position to ask it: Who was this John?
Senior counterintelligence figures who have worked closely with him describe an extraordinarily modest man, soft-spoken and eager to remain clear of any limelight, the kind of guy who’s at his desk by 6 a.m. and whose primary hobbies are coaching his kids’ various sports teams and shooting hoops with the other men at his local parish—though he has yet to play with the president. He enjoys “the simple pleasures,” as a source close to him put it, “of any average Washington suburbanite.”
One senior counterterrorism official recalled being with John when the news came back of the fiasco at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, when a double agent blew himself up, killing seven C.I.A. employees. According to the source, John, “like the best officers, was stoic.”
Though John may well have played a significant role in that operation and may have shared in the blame for its failure, no one we spoke to would say so or comment on the specifics.
“It was a tough morning,” the source said simply. “You go to the ceremonies and the farewells and you work harder the next day. But it was a very somber moment.”
There wasn’t much more to say about John. Those close to him were hard-pressed to come up with quirks or personal details. However, they all said he’s an effective manager, if his style is a little hokey at times. He offers up the same platitude to the kids he coaches that he employs with the analysts who work under him: “There’s no ‘I’ in team.”
In Mr. Young’s view, John sounds like the perfect new face for an agency that’s had its share of struggles in recent years. Indeed, Mr. Young added, his primary audience might be the president himself. “I think they shopped him to Obama with his height and his basketball background and his looks, and Obama fell in love with him,” he said. Mr. Young doesn’t believe John will remain under cover for long. “C.I.A. John is a very marketable product now,” he said. “I think he’ll be on the lecture trail. First it will be private briefings, and slowly he’ll ease out. Isn’t he a great role model? Tall, athletic. They’re going to make the most of this.”
Mr. Young is an entertaining man to talk to. Though his views have the ring of conspiracy theories, they are also fairly spellbinding. For instance, he regaled us with his suspicion that the C.I.A. knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts long before killing him, but held off as a way to keep the budgetary spigot flowing to the military and intelligence communities. “We’ve had a war going on for 11 years now, and that’s just a standard rationale for billions in military expenditures. It’s a matter of deciding when you want to kill that golden goose that’s kept the military going for more than a decade.”
“I don’t have an opinion on that,” a senior counterterrorism official said sharply, when presented with the theory. “My personal opinion is that if we could have found him a week after 9/11, we would have been happy to do that.”
Mr. Young seems habitually inclined to see a nefarious plot behind most any incident, but at least it’s a plot—with shadowy, all-powerful figures pulling the strings, controlling the flow of information, paternalistically guarding the nation’s secrets and carefully maintaining their grip on power.
That may be a frightening notion, but it’s also a reassuring one—at least compared with the other possibility: that there are actual bad guys out there, that they really can take down a building or two if they set their minds to it, and that sometimes, purely by accident, the clean-cut suburban dad dedicated to hunting them down is put in mortal danger purely by mistake, by a collection of bumbling bureaucrats who just want a little credit when things go their way.
Additional reporting by Brian Thomas Gallagher.