And outside and in

August 11, 2004

ONE WAY not to deal with intelligence relating to terrorism is to do what the Bush administration did a week ago Sunday: It blew the cover on a Pakistani double agent, apparently forcing both Pakistan and Great Britain to wrap up counterterrorism police operations before they had been seen through to a conclusion.

The Pakistanis are furious - understandably so. How, they wonder, could Washington have put public relations ahead of a chance to strike an actual blow at al-Qaida?

When Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security, went on television Aug. 1 and announced that the terror alert level was being raised in New York, Newark, N.J., and Washington, he stressed that the move was based on freshly obtained intelligence. That should have been enough. But someone in the administration evidently felt either that Americans were getting too skeptical of official warnings or that it was time for the White House to show how on-the-ball it is - or both. This unidentified person promptly leaked the information that the intelligence stemmed from the arrest in Pakistan of a man named Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, and that he had computer disks relating to al-Qaida's plans.

The leaker didn't know or didn't care that Mr. Khan had been turned following his arrest back in July and was at that moment working for Pakistani security agents against his former terrorist colleagues.

Pakistani officials say they believe they were finally on the verge of making real progress against al-Qaida - but the opportunity blew up in their faces after the news came out of Washington.

The fiasco apparently extended to London, too, where within days police were moving against a cell they had been hoping to keep under surveillance.

Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, says there's a fine line between providing enough information so that Americans will take it seriously and providing so much that it impedes active investigations. Yet the administration might not have found itself facing this dilemma at all if it hadn't so insistently engaged in so much spinning over the preceding three years - most spectacularly regarding Iraq - and thereby invited so much healthy doubt about every pronouncement it makes.

To top things off, last week the FBI conducted a sting operation in Albany, N.Y., in which two men were led to believe they were helping buy missiles for the assassination of the Pakistani ambassador. Pakistan, not surprisingly, is less than amused that the FBI would concoct a plot that placed a big target on the back of one of its diplomats.

All in all, it was a great week for relations between the United States and the one country that is playing the most vital role in the struggle with al-Qaida. Somebody in Washington should get serious about repairing the damage.

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