CNN's Late Edition discussed the issue with not only Condoleezza Rice but also a couple of senators. The transcript is well worth reading in full but the more interestig bits are here:
BLITZER: But is it fair to say that most, if not all, of the information was three or four years old, or was there other information that was fresher?
RICE: These casings were done in 2000, 2001, maybe at other times. Some of them perhaps have been updated. But the information that there were plots under way that might relate to the pre-election period came from multiple sources, and active multiple sources.
And so you took the fact that they have these casing files on important financial institutions in Washington, New Jersey and New York City, and you took the fact that you were capturing people in places like Pakistan, who related to both the files and to pre- election plots. And you have to go out and warn. You have a duty to warn.
BLITZER: Let's talk about some of the people who have been picked up, mostly in Pakistan, over the last few weeks. In mid-July, Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan. There is some suggestion that by releasing his identity here in the United States, you compromised a Pakistani intelligence sting operation, because he was effectively being used by the Pakistanis to try to find other al Qaeda operatives. Is that true?
RICE: Well, I don't know what might have been going on in Pakistan. I will say this, that we did not, of course, publicly disclose his name. One of them...
BLITZER: He was disclosed in Washington on background.
RICE: On background. And the problem is that when you're trying to strike a balance between giving enough information to the public so that they know that you're dealing with a specific, credible, different kind of threat than you've dealt with in the past, you're always weighing that against kind of operational considerations. We've tried to strike a balance. We think for the most part, we've struck a balance, but it's indeed a very difficult balance to strike.
BLITZER: Had he been flipped, in the vernacular, was he cooperating with Pakistani intelligence after he was arrested?
RICE: I don't know the answer to that question, as to whether or not he was cooperating with them.
As I read this exchange I take from it that almost exactly what I proposed yesterday is in fact what happened. Thanks to the ravings of Howard Dean (whom Dr Rice skewers nicely a bit further down the transcript) you get some official telling certain members of the Washington press corps on background that these alerts were not politically inspired and based on old information but rather on some brand new information got from Khan and others in Pakistan. The key is the on background phrase, my understanding from this is that on background means you don't name names or report the details discussed. Background is used to provide context. Its a way to (re)direct the thrust of news investigation/reporting but you don't expect the contents of your background briefing to be splashed across the newspapers the next day.
The senators were reasonably senatorial and unwilling to be drawn into direct criticism of anyone. I think this bit sums up the problem well:
BLITZER: I did speak earlier with Dr. Condolleeza Rice, Senator Allen. She confirmed that on background, not publicly, but off the record, without mentioning any names, they did release the name of this Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, but she didn't know if, in fact, the Pakistanis had been using him as some sort of sting operation. Are you as concerned as Senator Schumer is that the release of his name potentially could have compromised an ongoing effort to round up additional al Qaeda operatives?
SEN. GEORGE ALLEN (R), VIRGINIA: Well, from what I can glean from all of this, they actually were able to get a lot of information to get the different addresses, the methods by which they were communicating over the Internet, and undoubtedly was a very productive and useful sting operation. It was positive, it was good. You're glad to hear we're infiltrating in that regard...
BLITZER: But if the information comes out too quickly, it could up-end a bigger potential round-up of suspects?
ALLEN: They get into a bind. And Senator Schumer's remarks were right. People -- I always like to know. People want to know, all right, what's the information? Why are we shutting down this road, or why is there concerns? You always want to know the evidence.
In this situation, in my view, they should have kept their mouth shut and just said, "We have information, trust us," and I think that would have been good enough for me and, I would hope, for also others who say, gosh, we want to get more openness.
BLITZER: But you know, Senator Schumer, in this political climate right now the words, "trust us," during a heavy political season like this is right now, probably are not going to do it for a lot of Americans who are skeptical of this administration.
SCHUMER: And they could've said just what they said to us, to George and I, even in the intelligence briefings, which is what I've mentioned before. I mean, it's public now, so there's no worry, and they did say it, which is, "We have new information that ties strands together."
The problem is that the mainstream media and the "terrorist wing" of the Democratic party were clearly unwilling to accept the "trust me" excuse. Indeed given all the BS about an August surprise and so on which got considerable coverage in the mainstream media and not just in the "tin-foil hat" parts of the Internet, its seems clear that had we not had the details about why this threat was credible published we'd be seeing NY Slimes columnists mocking the terror alert even today. Probably by writing self congratulationary pieces about how they had seen through the Bush administrations blatent manipulation of the terror alert system.
Somewhere else in the senatorial interview one of them says that his problem with the Bush administration is its secrecy not its openness. I agree. Bush and his team have generally done a terrible job at communicating and revealing information that they had no reason to hide. BUT the media doesn't help things. If I had a background briefing plastered across the NY Slimes I'd stop talking too. Irresponible journalism just helps the more secretive members of government justify their actions and is not at all what we want.
At some point journalists and their employers have to start accepting that journalists actually have responsibility too. In the closed clubby world of 1950s journalism it was understood that journalists did not have to immediately broadcast to their audience whatever secret they had gleaned regardless of the consequences. The NY Slimes still hasthe slogan "all the news that's fit to print" which implies a certain amount of thought about consequences.Since Watergate this ideal has disappeared and its lack is going to wreck journalism. The problem is not just that secretive organizations will remain secretive, its more broadly based. If journalists wish to be accepted by the people they write about then they have to be trustworthy. Blowing that trust and making journalism adversarial is a bad way to get information from people. More to the point the audience isn't that stupid. When the average joe sees journalists being irresponisble, biased or otherwise untrustworthy then they won't bother tuning in. Worse they will open themselves to the paranolid ravings of the conspiracy theorists.
The world needs credible trustworthy journalists. Ones who will present a story in a responsible fashion without bias and without compromising our security. Right now we don't have that as a general rule. The only fix that I can see is for people burned by bad journalism to start refusing to talk to the brands that burn but because journalists likes to think of themselves as being crusaders for truth, were the NY Slimes (for example) were to be removed from all Whitehouse press briefings then the cries of "censorship" and "muzzling of the press" would be deafening.
Eventually, however, this is what we will see because eventually the victims of shoddy journalism wil refuse to keep on dealing with people who then betray them because they will calculate that the risks of abuse are greater than the rewards of openness.