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Who to trust in Washington?

The reports of a new al-Qaeda bomb coming out of Yemen raise questions over intelligence leaks - who is talking and why?
Last modified: 9 May 2012 23:14
Photo: Reuters

I don’t like covering intelligence stories. It’s not that I don’t find them intriguing; I like James Bond movies as much as the next person. I do think the work of intelligence agencies affects most of us more than we know. 

The problem is it is often impossible to get independent confirmation. Reporters are basically told to trust their sources and in America, often one reporter's scoop gets repeated as fact by their colleagues.  

Each line begins to form an overall narrative, which becomes conventional wisdom and it is eventually considered the truth. We often later hear that someone got something wrong; still that almost never changes what people already believe.  

The facts are set, even though most people have no way of knowing if they are facts at all. It used to be that reporters in the United States wouldn’t and couldn’t go on air or to print with a story unless they had information they could attribute to someone.  

It allowed the audience to form their own opinion as to whether the information was being leaked for a reason. It also had the added bonus of making sure people were telling the truth. If not, reporters could pull out the quote, call them liars publicly and most reporters would just stop talking to them.  

That was then, not now. 

That was clear in Tuesday’s reporting of a new al-Qaeda bomb coming out of Yemen. The story started breaking around noon and it was soon everywhere. Every domestic network, wire service, major newspaper seemed to have some detail.  

Officially the Obama Administration said it wasn’t talking about this. But someone was talking. I’m guessing more than a few someones, or it wouldn’t have been everywhere.  

We don’t know who was giving the information, and therefore we don’t know why they were talking. There are members of Congress who say they are up in arms because officials shouldn’t be talking to reporters about classified information.   

That is the standard line, unless of course it is a mission they want to talk about, like the killing of Osama bin Laden. That covert operation led to press conferences, campaign videos and there will even be a movie about it. We expect to see that hit the big screen just before voters go the polls. 

My not so subtle point here is that when it comes to these kinds of stories about the CIA and Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service having a mole in Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, you have to wonder why you’re hearing about it at all.  

There is a little known fact about official Washington these days. The Obama Administration has dramatically increased the cases of US government employees being tried for talking to reporters. There is a fear of talking and getting caught. A lot of people were talking yesterday. The question we have to ask is why weren’t they afraid as well?