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Leaks, Bombs And Double Agents: More On That AP Story

The Justice Department's subpoena of Associated Press phone records as part of an investigation into what Attorney General Eric Holder has called "a very grave leak" to the news agency has set off a political firestorm on Capitol Hill, but there's a lot to the AP story published a year ago that started it all.

You can read it yourself here. The May 7, 2012, story cites unnamed sources who told the news agency that the CIA had thwarted a plan by a Yemeni affiliate of al-Qaida to destroy a U.S.-bound airliner. That despite White House assertions that it was unaware of any such plot.

The AP's story said the would-be bomber planned to use an "upgrade of the underwear bomb that failed to detonate aboard a jetliner over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009." It said the new bomb had a better detonation system than the underwear bomb and was constructed using no metal parts to make it difficult or impossible to detect at airports. The AP wrote:

"The would-be suicide bomber, based in Yemen, had not yet picked a target or bought his plane tickets when the CIA stepped in and seized the bomb, officials said. It is not immediately clear what happened to the alleged bomber.

"The operation unfolded even as the White House and Department of Homeland Security assured the American public that they knew of no al-Qaida plots against the U.S. around the anniversary of bin Laden's death. The AP learned about the thwarted plot last week but agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way."

But, as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, there's much more to the story:

"As we understood it then and still understand it, that suicide bomber that AP refers to in its story was actually a double agent working with Western intelligence agencies," Dina says.

Although the double agent did hand the new underwear bomb technology to U.S. officials, "they had hoped the agent could do more [and] ... one consequence of the story is that this agent's identity was blown," she says.

Dina says the bomb was of special interest because of who made it — Ibrahim al-Ashiri, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula's master bomb maker.

"Ashiri is also thought to be behind the printer-cartridge bomb that was supposed to target cargo jets over the U.S. a couple of years ago and the underwear bomb of Christmas 2009," she says.

Ashiri is considered a genius at building bombs and authorities had hoped to use the double agent to get at him, Dina says:

"Officials tell us the plan was to reinsert the agent into al-Qaida's arm in Yemen after [authorities] got their hands on the bomb," but the AP leak made that impossible.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.