In this week's intelligence briefing: Why the Scooter Libby trial matters, the risk shoulder fired missiles could pose to commercial jets and an American connected with Al Qaeda arrested in Somalia.
The perjury trial of Scooter Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff, is now in its second month here in Washington. I've been covering it along with my colleague Jim Angle. It's a complicated story and one that is exposing the questionable relationship between some journalists and their sources in the nation's capital. While this aspect of the trial is getting a lot of attention, I believe some important principles are being missed.
When we ask smart, driven, courageous recruits to joint the intelligence community, and in many circumstances put their lives on the line in this post 9/11 world, there is an unspoken trust — that their missions and their identities will not be put at risk.
I spend a great deal of time covering the intelligence community and intelligence related matters. Based on some of those conversations, it appears to me that the outing of Valerie Plame had an impact. No one really knows, with absolute certainty, the role of Valerie Plame at the CIA. For now, she is most well known as the wife of former ambassador and war critic Joe Wilson.
But one intelligence observer put it to me this way: When an agent's name or cover is blown, their entire career can be jeopardized and more importantly, the contacts they have developed over the years can be lost. I don't know if that was the case with Valerie Plame...and many question how "undercover" she really was. But it's worth noting that if the key to preventing another terror attack is good intelligence, then the folks we expect to do the legwork must have complete faith that the system will protect them and their sources.
With reports this week of insurgents increasingly targeting our helicopters in Iraq, it made me wonder again about the possibility of shoulder-to-air missile attacks on commercial jets in this country. It’s a nightmare scenario, and one that Homeland Security has been considering since 9/11. And there is a precedent. What comes to mind is November 2002, with a near miss, targeting an Israeli charter jet in Mombassa, Kenya. This incident led the Israelis to intensify efforts to protect their aircrafts — but what may be possible for a relatively small fleet of planes could be prohibitive (in terms of cost) given the number of commercial aircrafts in the United States.
We've had years of warnings on Capitol Hill and spent millions on studies about the issue, but not a lot of concrete action has been taken. There is some however — the perimeters around airports are better policed than five or six years ago. But, as one former intelligence operative told me, "terrorism is like water, it takes the path of least resistance." With the screening procedures so much tighter inside the airports, for passengers and their luggage, the use of this technology may seem appealing to terrorist groups.
By some estimates, as many as 15,000 of these shoulder fired missiles, many of them made in Russia, are for sale on the black market today.
And finally, we now have new information about one of the first Americans to be picked up on the battlefield, allegedly connected to Al Qaeda, since John Walker Lindh shortly after 9/11.
According to the U.S. attorney in Texas, it's actually the first time an American citizen is facing criminal charges due to alleged membership to an extreme Islamic group in Somalia. This is important because that group, The Islamic Courts Movement, has provided shelter and aid to Al Qaeda in east Africa.
Daniel Maldonado, 28, is a former Houston resident, who allegedly went to Africa two years ago and then onto Somalia, where he became part of a movement to wage Jihad outside the United States. It's speculated that he went specifically to establish an independent Islamic state in Somalia, something the U.S. and other nations are trying to prevent because of Somalia's strategic location near Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. attorney says Maldonado received AK-47, explosives and weapon training, as well as other equipment. It's alleged that he got his training at two camps, one in Kismayoo and the other in Jilib. In addition, and perhaps most significantly, it's believed Maldonaldo was willing to die for the cause.
"During the course of his training, the complaint alleges Maldonado spoke to an individual about his willingness to become a suicide bomber if he was wounded, and also observed the making and testing of bombs with the group's bomb-maker."
In January, when Kenyan forces pushed in the Somali capital, many extremists fled. It's believe that Maldonado was among them. He was picked up by Kenyan authorities and turned over to the U.S. when he tried to leave the country.
Maldonado faces two charges: conspiring to use a destructive device, that can carry life, and receiving military training from a terrorist organization. The maximum sentence he faces is 10 years.
What's significant, according to law enforcement, is that Maldonaldo was apparently radicalized after 9/11.
Catherine Herridge is the Homeland Defense Correspondent for FOX News and hosts FOX News Live Saturday 12-2 p.m. ET. Since coming to FOX in 1996 as a London-based correspondent, she has since reported on the 2004 presidential elections, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Medicare fraud, prescription drug abuse and child prostitution. You can read the rest of her bio here.