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.

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.”

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