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The Necessity of State Secrecy in Combating Al-Qaeda

28/08/2013 16:16 BST | Updated 27/10/2013 09:12 GMT

For better or worse, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have ignited a debate on state secrecy. The momentum within public sentiment presently seems to be that our governments have concealed too much, for too long.

Yet when it comes to national security, sometimes the less we know the better. A good example of this emerged this month when an al-Qaeda terrorist threat led the U.S. to close its embassies across the Middle East and North Africa, and issue a global terror alert.

Reams of information has since come into the public domain that has, at best, confused the situation; and at worst, made the U.S. looked like it over-reacted and even hindered their attempts to stop similar plots in the future.

There is little ambiguity over al-Qaeda's intent to strike at the U.S. Therefore, it was not a surprise when we learned that the U.S. had intercepted communications between two senior al-Qaeda leaders discussing a potentially devastating attack. When combined with other intelligence chatter, the U.S. chose to issue a travel alert and close its embassies. Other European governments followed suit, closing their embassies in Sana'a, Yemen.

Operationally, this was all that needed to be divulged by the U.S. government. It showed the seriousness of the potential attack, that counterterrorism and law enforcement officials were attempting to stop them from taking place, but reminded citizens of the need to be vigilant.

Unfortunately, however, this was not where the story ended.

Within days, we learned that the communications that were intercepted were between Ayman al-Zawahiri, emir of al-Qaeda, and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, emir of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the organisation's overall general manager.

Then, it was divulged that it was not just communications between al-Zawahiri and al-Wuhayshi that the U.S. had intercepted. Instead, the U.S. had been able to access a seven-hour, remote conference conducted over an internet messaging system between al-Qaeda leaders from around the world.

An ability to intercept this level of communication is a huge tactical success in the war against al-Qaeda. However, it is hard to see the benefit of it being publicised. Such a successful breach of al-Qaeda's operational security is hopefully a breakthrough in tracking down its leaders in order to capture or kill them. Government officials speaking too freely about it will surely only make this harder.

This was not the only problematic aspect of the story. When referencing which leaders were hooked into the conference, one U.S. intelligence official commented that 'All you need to do is look at that list of places we shut down'. Yet this made little sense. Embassies were shut down in areas where there is little threat of terrorism and no al-Qaeda leadership presence (for example, Bahrain, Burundi, the United Arab Emirates and Madagascar). However, one group that supposedly were in on the conference was Boko Haram in Nigeria - and yet the U.S. missions in Abuja and Lagos stayed open.

Other sensitive details also began to flow regarding the potential targets for this attack. Al-Qaeda was targeting Western diplomatic missions. It was targeting Western ambassadors. It was targeting liquid gas stations. It was targeting oil pipelines. It was targeting military headquarters. It was planning to take control of ports.

Perhaps all of the above were true, but such a deluge of information led to doubts over the veracity of the threat. Then, when - thankfully - none of these attacks occurred (or at least have not at time of writing), instead of assuming that counterterrorism officials had successfully prevented what al-Qaeda had planned, there was cynicism as to whether such a threat existed at all.

This cynicism was heightened by other contradictory information released. For example, the U.S. picked up the pace of its drone strikes against targets in Yemen as a result of the threat. One strike killed three al-Qaeda militants and led to a U.S. official quickly telling ABC News that 'We got the operational guys we were after'. However, within days, intelligence officials then told NBC that actually 'none [killed] were of operational significance.'

Both cannot be right. Instead, in the rush to declare success against al-Qaeda, contradictory and inaccurate information was gushing out of the administration (a problem that has manifested itself far more often under President Obama than it should have).

The point of this is not to criticise the U.S. for overstating this specific al-Qaeda threat. Al-Wuhayshi himself reportedly said during the leadership conference that the planned attacks would 'change the face of history', and U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, called it 'the most serious threat that I've seen in the last several years'. It is also not to criticise the journalists who were simply doing their job in trying to get to the bottom of the story.

Instead, it is to question whether the U.S. government was simply too open. Demanding more transparency from our leaders is currently en vogue, and there are times this may strengthen faith in the government and enhance its legitimacy. In this case, however, the opposite was true. It is worth remembering that an effective national security policy does not always go hand-in-hand with a transparent one.