In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, one of the most stinging criticisms leveled at the CIA was that it had utterly failed to penetrate al Qaeda with a human source.
That worm turned this week when headlines erupted with the story of how a Saudi spy, working in conjunction with the CIA, penetrated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), preventing an attack on a U.S.-bound airliner, providing critical intelligence to guide a drone strike against a sought-after AQAP commander, and delivering an intact bomb design for U.S. intelligence to dissect.
It was, by any measure, a spectacular intelligence coup going to the heart of the al Qaeda branch believed to be most actively conspiring to kill Americans. But as plaudits began to traverse one vector of the press and the blogosphere, a backlash emerged in another. One of the more prominent expressions of the latter came in a typically overwrought posting by Salon's Glenn Greenwald:
So just as virtually every "domestic Terror plot" is one conceived, directed, funded and controlled by the FBI, this new Al Qaeda plot from Yemen was directed by some combination of the CIA and its Saudi partners. So this wasn't merely a failed, nascent plot which is causing this fear-mongering media orgy: it was one controlled at all times by the U.S. and Saudi Governments.
Greenwald was not alone in making this questionable assessment. Dozens, if not hundreds, of bloggers and pundits of various stripes were right behind him, ranging along the edges of mainstream politics and spreading enthusiastically in more aggressive anti-establishment circles.
Infiltration and other spy games hold a particular fascination for the American psyche. When a terrorist attack succeeds, Americans demand to know where their intelligence services were and how they could have missed the warning signs. When all's quiet, however, Americans are generally happy enough to look the other way -- so long as the dirty work of keeping the country safe stays out of sight.
But a growing number of "foiled cases" -- from Rezwan Ferdaus's plan to fly a remote-controlled model plane into the U.S. Capitol as a member of an FBI-provided terrorist cell to this week's double-agent revelation -- has voices expressing dismay over just how far those services are willing to go.