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Did the Associated Press blow an Al Qaeda informant’s cover?

Some officials say the Associated Press scoop on a thwarted terrorist plot by an Al Qaeda affiliate in Yemen harmed the effort to neutralize a master bomb-builder. Does that excuse the Obama administration’s aggressive crackdown on national security leaks?

How bad was the Justice Department’s going after the phone records of Associated Press writers and editors?

Very bad, according to most journalism professionals worried about sources – especially whistleblowers – refusing to talk for fear of Big Government retribution.

First Amendment radicals – I count myself among them – resist any and all such intrusions,” writes Reuters columnist Jack Shafer. “You can’t very well have a free press if every unpublished act of journalism can be co-opted by cops, prosecutors and defense attorneys.”

But it’s still unclear how serious the leak was that led to the AP’s scoop about a foiled terrorist plot in Yemen and then to the sweeping search for the leaker. Did it in fact “put people at risk,” asPresident Obama suggested this week?

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Duke University Law School professor Christopher H. Schroeder, who was Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy in the Obama administration from 2010 to 2012, obviously is not a disinterested source.

But he makes a good point about why the Justice Department went to such lengths to find the source of the leak regarding a story involving what could have been a successful underwear bomber tied to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula targeting a US airliner.

“What went completely without mention in the initial coverage was the fact that thwarting this plot was not the objective of the ongoing undercover operation,” Mr. Schroeder wrote on Huffington Post this week. “Its true objective was to gain enough intelligence to locate and neutralize the master bomb builder, Ibrahim Hassan al-Ashiri, who works with an Al-Qaeda affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).”

“Penetrating AQAP is incredibly difficult,” Schroeder continued. “This double agent provided a rare opportunity to gain critical, life-saving information. Whoever disclosed the information obtained by the AP had not only put the agent’s life and his family’s life in danger. He also killed a golden opportunity to save untold more lives that now remain at risk due to al-Ashiri remaining at large.”

Ken Dilanian of the Los Angeles Times reports on the widespread dismay the leak caused intelligence agencies working with the CIA around the world.

“The informant, reportedly a British subject of Saudi birth … was trained and outfitted with the latest version of an underwear bomb designed to pass metal detectors and other airport safeguards,” officials told Mr. Dilanian.

“Even after the informant left Yemen with the explosive device and turned it over to his handlers, U.S. intelligence officials believed they could use him to help disrupt and destroy the terrorist network,” Dilanian writes. “British intelligence officials, who played a key role in the secret operation, were furious, a British diplomat said. Saudi intelligence officials also were dismayed, U.S. officials said.”

Politically, going after journalistic sources as aggressively as the Obama administration has is seen as yet another “scandal” these days. But not everyone agrees.

“Veteran prosecutors have a far more measured response: It’s complicated,” writes Politico’s James Hohmann.

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“These lawyers recognize the threats to a free press but say the dangers of national security leaks – and the difficulties in finding the leakers – sometimes force the government’s hand,” Hohmann writes. “The actions of the Obama administration were unusual and deserve careful scrutiny, they say, but do not automatically equal a clear-cut abuse of power.”

“I don’t think it’s a scandal,” John DeanRichard Nixon’s White House counsel who served jail time for his role in the Watergate cover-up, told Hohmann. “It’s certainly not Nixonian.”

It may not be Nixonian as Washington scandals go, but it spotlights the administration’s attitude toward leakers that’s gotten more criticism than praise.

“But the man who U.S. officials believe designed and built the underwear bombs, Ibrahim Nasiri, remains at large,” observes Ken Dilanian of the LA Times. “Finding him would have been a top goal of the operation with the informant.”