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Underwear bomb news reports prompt inquiry, official says

May 9, 2012 |  4:23 pm

WASHINGTON -- The director of national intelligence has ordered an internal inquiry on how reporters learned of the successful penetration of Al Qaeda in Yemen by a double agent working for Saudi intelligence and the CIA, a senior intelligence official said Wednesday.

The issue emerged in part after several members of Congress who had given interviews later called for an investigation of leaks in the case involving the seizure of an updated model of an underwear bomb similar to the one that fizzled rather than exploding in a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day  2009.

CIA officials would not say if they had filed a criminal referral to the Justice Department alleging illegal  disclosure of classified information. The agency normally submits a so-called crime report if significant classified information appears in the news media, a former senior CIA official said.

Todd Ebitz, a CIA spokesman, decried the news stories. “The entire intelligence community should be concerned about recent unauthorized disclosures, and CIA will participate fully in the DNI’s internal review,” he said.

The Justice Department can launch a leaks investigation without a referral from the CIA.  A Justice Department official would not say whether such an inquiry has begun, though other officials said one was highly likely. The Wall Street Journal reported on its website Wednesday that an FBI investigation began several days ago.

The general counsel’s office of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, will conduct the internal review, said the senior intelligence official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name. The official said the review will look only at the conduct of intelligence officials, not White House staff, members of Congress or other government employees.

A Justice Department criminal investigation, should it happen, would be much broader in scope and could carry far greater penalties. It would allow prosecutors to call witnesses before a grand jury and subpoena information, including phone records and email. 

In 2005,  then-New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 12 weeks in jail until she agreed to testify to a grand jury investigating who leaked the name of a covert CIA officer, Valerie Plame. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, then Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, ultimately was convicted of obstruction of justice. His 2 1/2 year prison sentence was commuted by President George W. Bush in 2007.

An investigation in the current case probably would be more complicated since numerous news organizations, including the Associated Press, ABC News, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post, all reported what U.S. officials say were highly sensitive details of a secret intelligence operation.


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Photo: A photo made available this week of the 2009 underwear bomb from an unsuccessful attempt by Al Qaeda in Yemen to bring down a passenger plane flying into Detroit. Credit: FBI