US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has ordered an inquiry into leaks to media outlets that revealed how the CIA disrupted an al-Qaeda bomb plot through a spy who infiltrated the group, a senior official said on Wednesday.
The internal review across 16 intelligence agencies came as lawmakers denounced the leaks and warned the disclosures could jeopardize sensitive espionage work.
“It’s an inquiry into whether or not there were any unauthorized disclosures of classified information,” said the senior intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The review ordered by Clapper, who has expressed outrage in the past over the spilling of secrets to reporters, will not cover officials at the White House or the National Security Council, who fall outside his authority.
Key details of the disrupted bomb plot were reported by US media only hours after a drone strike on a key al-Qaeda figure and as FBI experts examined an explosive meant to bring down a US-bound airliner.
“I don’t think those leaks should have happened. There was an operation in progress and I think the leak is regarded as very serious,” Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Tuesday.
The Democrat promised a congressional investigation of the episode, a view shared by her Republican counterparts.
“If something bad happens because it was leaked too early, that’s a catastrophe and it’s also a crime,” Republican Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN.
Amid a heated presidential election campaign, Rogers and fellow Republican lawmakers suggested the leaks might have been politically motivated to burnish US President Barack Obama’s image.
News that the US and foreign intelligence agencies had thwarted a plot by al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen first came from The Associated Press on Monday, after administration officials persuaded the wire service to delay the report for several days.
Other US media, including ABC News and the New York Times, reported on Tuesday that the plot had been foiled by a spy who volunteered for the would-be suicide mission and managed to bring out the explosive, handing it over to US intelligence services.
The spy, reportedly a “mole” or “double agent,” spent weeks with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and garnered sensitive information that was passed on to the US, allowing the CIA to launch a drone strike on Sunday against a senior al-Qaeda operative in Yemen.
The air raid killed Fahd al-Quso, who was wanted for the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.
A senior US official told the New York Times that the bomb for the would-be al-Qaeda attack was sewn into “custom fit” underwear that would have been difficult to detect even in a pat-down at an airport.
Foreign allies already were wary of sharing secrets with the US after the fallout from the WikiLeaks saga, in which the Web site published reams of classified US diplomatic cables and documents.
The leaks this week will further undermine the confidence of spy agencies working with the US, said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank.
The leaks “will discourage cooperation with us. We can’t keep secrets,” Riedel said.