years, a clandestine U.S. intelligence team had
tracked a man they knew was high in the leadership ofal
Qaeda— an operative some
believed had a hand in plotting the gruesome 2009
suicide attack inAfghanistanthat
pursuit was personal, and by early 2014, according to
a source directly involved in the operation, the
agency had the target under tight drone surveillance.
“We literally had a bead on this guy’s head and just
needed authorization from Washington to pull the
trigger,” said the source.
something unexpected happened. While agents waited for
the green light, theal
Qaedaoperative’s name, as
well as information about theCIA’s
classified surveillance and plan to kill him in
Pakistan, suddenly appeared in the U.S. press.
al-Shami, it turned out, was an American
citizen, and President Obama and his national security
advisers were torn over whether the benefits of
killing him would outweigh the political and civil
liberties backlash that was sure to follow.
interviews with several current and former officials,
was cited as an example of what critics say was the
House’s troublesome tendency to mishandle some
of the nation’s most delicate intelligence —
especially regarding the Middle East — by leaking
classified information in an attempt to sway public
opinion on sensitive matters.
the end of Mr. Obama’s second term, according to
sources who spoke anonymously with The Washington
Times, the practices of leaking, ignoring and twisting
intelligence for political gain were ingrained in how
the administration conducted national security policy.
criticisms have resurfaced in the debate over whether
overall intelligence fumbling by the ObamaWhite
Housein its final months may
have amplified the damage wrought by suspected Russian
meddling in the U.S. presidential election last year.
repeated occasions during the Obama era, high-level
sources and some lawmakers lamented to The Washington
Times, the president’s inner circle ignored classified
briefings and twisted intelligence to fit political
goals. Long before Donald Trump appeared on theWhite
Housecampaign scene, many
pointed to an incident during the 2012 election cycle
as the most dramatic evidence of how that approach
affected the handling of national security threats.
the campaign trail in 2012, Mr. Obama declared thatal
Qaedawas “on the run,”
despite a flow of intelligence showing that the
terrorist group was metastasizing — a circumstance
that led to the rise of the Islamic State.
Americans believed the president was justifiably
touting a major success of his first term with the
U.S. Special Forces killing ofal
Qaedafounder Osama bin Laden
in 2011. But the gulf between Mr. Obama’s campaign
pronouncements and classified briefings provided to
Congress touched off a heated debate in intelligence
circles over whether the president was twisting the
facts for political gain.
Obama was understating the threat,” then-House
Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Committee
Chairman Mike Rogers told The Times in an interview
after the 2012 election. “To say the core [was]
decimated and therefore we [had]al
Qaedaon the run was not
consistent with the overall intelligence assessment at
back this month, Mr. Rogers suggested that Mr. Obama —
like many presidents before him — had a propensity for
pushing certain politically advantageous narratives
even if they contradicted classified intelligence.
controversy has long swirled around politicized
intelligence and leaks. The George W. Bush
administration was accused of “stovepiping”
intelligence it needed for its case to invade Iraq in
2003 while ignoring bits that may have undercut the
rationale for war.
case blossomed into a major scandal known as the
Housestaffer Scooter Libby
was convicted of lying to investigators about the leak
of the name of covertCIAofficer
Valerie Plame, whose husband had challenged the
administration’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass
destruction. President Bush later commuted Mr. Libby’s
regard to the ObamaWhite
House, Mr. Rogers told The Times, the
circumstances were different but no less disturbing.
“Over the course of their time in office, the Obama
administration’s world got smaller and smaller,” said
the Michigan Republican, who retired from Congress in
2015. “They listened to fewer and fewer different
opinions. When you do that, that is how you miss
was never in it’
and instability in the Middle East factored into one
Obama-era intelligence leak that officials now say
badly undermined national security.
covert “Train and Equip” program was crafted to aid
forces seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar
Assad after the 2011 Arab Spring protests exploded
into a civil war in Syria.
and Equip began with a flow of “nonlethal aid” to
certain Syrian rebel groups, but as its budget
ballooned to some $1 billion, the program morphed into
an unwieldy and ineffective effort to assist an
unconventional military campaign.
former senior intelligence official said the program
was badly undermined because theWhite
Housewas constantly leaking
details of efforts to build a Free Syrian Army with
cash, weapons and intelligence.
had drawn a red line on Syria over chemical weapons,
but then he didn’t do [expletive],” the former
official told The Times. “TheWhite
Housewas facing a lot of
political pressure to show they had policy for Syria,
so they leaked theCIA’s
covert action plan. They leaked it for purely
political reasons, so they could say, ‘Look, look, we
have a Syria strategy.’”
Pollack, a formerCIAanalyst
now with the conservative American Enterprise
Institute think tank in Washington, said other factors
also undermined any chance for the program to succeed.
Mr. Obama and his top aides were openly wary of being
dragged deeper into the Syrian fight while the
administration was trying to execute a strategic
“pivot to Asia” — away from the heavy U.S. foreign
policy focus on the Middle East.
heart was never in it, and the administration wanted
nothing to do with it,” Mr. Pollack told The Times.
“He mostly did it to avoid domestic political
blowback. We could have done so much more, but the way
it was run, it killed itself.”
Pollack, who once worked in the ClintonWhite
House, said the program’s recruitment vetting
was ridiculous. “The [Obama] administration more or
less insisted, ‘We will only accept applicants … who
had never met a jihadist.’ The vetting standards were
absurd and excluded almost everyone who had any
contact with the opposition in Syria,” Mr. Pollack
was like they thought we were going to wage a civil
war against the Assad government with members of the
social pages of The New York Times,” he said. “The
Harvard crew team was not going to show up.”
the long run, the policy’s failure provided a clear
window for Iran and Russia to expand their military
presence and political influence into the power vacuum
created by Syria’s war.
then there was unmasking.
has swirled for the past year around the Obama
administration’s use of a process that allowed
Houseofficials to learn the
redacted identities of Americans swept up in
classified surveillance against suspected foreign
operatives during the months surrounding the
decades, national security officials at the highest
level have used their security clearances to engage in
the process known as “unmasking” while reading raw
intercepts from around the world for better
understanding of relationships that might impact
Carter’s hawkish national security adviser, Zbigniew
Brzezinski, was known by America’s spies as one who
“loved raw intelligence,” according to Bob Woodward’s
book “Veil, The Secret Wars of theCIA,
itself is not nefarious or conspiratorial; it’s done
all the time around the world by ambassadors andCIAstation
chiefs,” said one formerCIAclandestine
service officer who spoke with The Times. “It’s a
standard procedure and involves a rigorous and
bureaucratic process … to ensure whoever’s seeking the
unmasking of names has a legitimate reason.”
Republicans believe the process — and the safeguards
against abuse — went terribly awry in the final months
of the bitter campaign between Mr. Trump and Democrat
Hillary Clinton and through the transition period
between Mr. Trump’s unexpected victory and
by former Trump National Security Adviser Michael
Flynn, as well as Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared
Kushner, and former topWhite
Housestrategist Steve Bannon,
were all captured in surveillance of a Trump Tower
meeting in December 2016. Susan E. Rice, Mr. Obama’s
national security adviser, has since acknowledged she
asked that the identities of the Americans in the
surveillance be revealed, citing what she said were
legitimate concerns about the purpose of the group’s
meeting with foreigners.
the unmasking itself may have been justified, the
service officer said, what came next was dangerous.
issue is when any names that have been unmasked end up
getting leaked to the press,” the former officer said.
“And that is certainly what looks like happened
vis-a-vis the Obama administration’s unmasking of
Trump officials who were in meetings with Russians or
Turks that were under American intelligence
Devin Nunes, California Republican and chairman of the
House intelligence committee, has gone further,
suggesting that Obama administration officials
strategically leaked the names to smear Mr. Trump and
fuel a narrative that the Trump campaign was secretly
working with foreign forces.
on, Mr. President’
that the ObamaWhite
Houseintentionally leaked the
unmasked names has been fueled by what intelligence
sources say was the administration track record of
other sensitive leaks — which stretched back to the
were shocked when their classified drone surveillance
appeared in 2014 reports by The Associated Press and
The New York Times, one intelligence source told The
Washington Times. “There’s no question this guy got
wind of the reports,” said the source. “The leak gave
him a heads-up, and he suddenly disappeared. We lost
our bead on him.”
outraged. Agents had been tracking theal
Qaedaoperative since early
2009, believing he had been directly involved in a
bomb attack that injured several officials at U.S.
Forward Operating Base Chapman inAfghanistan.Al-Shami’s
fingerprints turned up on packing tape around a second
bomb that didn’t explode.
a year later, there was another attack on Chapman, a
key clandestine operations center inAfghanistan,
in which sevenCIAofficers
were killed. Some suspectedal-Shamiplayed
a role in that attack as well.
as badly as theCIAwantedal-Shamidead,
the case carried controversial legal questions.
al-Shami— Arabic for “Abdullahthe
Syrian” — was the nom de guerre of a young man named
Muhanad Mahmoud al-Farekh. Although raised in Dubai,
al-Farekh was an American citizen because he was born
the time theCIAhad
him in its crosshairs in 2014, Mr. Obama was reeling
from the furor sparked by his authorization of a drone
strike in 2011 that killed another American citizen:al
al-Awlaki in Yemen.
American Civil Liberties Union condemned the al-Awlaki
strike as a violation of U.S. law because al-Awlaki
had “never been charged with any crime” in an American
of a similar reaction, the Obama administration
decided the best course of action would be to leak
information about the al-Shamicase
to stir up public awareness of the conundrum facing
the president, the former intelligence officials said.
said the source, “I actually appreciate that Obama
didn’t like the idea of killing another American
without due process. But was leaking this stuff really
the right way to handle this?
mean, come on Mr. President, it’s your finger on the
trigger. You’re the one who decides. All we do is aim
the gun,” said the source, who said it was fortunate
later captured alive and secretly flown to the United
States for trial.
Qaedaoperative was convicted
in September in U.S. federal court in New York on
terrorism charges under his birth name, Muhanad
31-year-old is slated to be sentenced next month