When a double-agent infiltrated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula by posing as a volunteer willing to train for suicide bomber duty, the CIA had achieved an enormous coup. The British-born agent earlier this year helped thwart the planned bombing of a U.S. bound plane with an advanced version of the "underwear bomb," and delivered the device to U.S. officials.
That success was soon bannered in international news reports that quoted "government officials" and gave explicit details about the operation and the bomb. Those reports have forced the double-agent and his family into hiding and limited his usefulness to intelligence services.
That debacle echoed an earlier intelligence disaster that was almost overlooked in the glow of the Navy SEALs mission that killed Osama bin Laden. Pakistani Dr. Shakil Afridi had worked with the CIA to help positively identify bin Laden through a fake vaccination program he had set up to obtain blood samples.
That story, too, leaked. Afridi was prosecuted by Pakistan. He is now serving 33 years in a Pakistani prison and his family blames the America for the disclosures that led to his arrest.
The destructive story plants have infuriated members of the U.S. intelligence community, who accuse administration officials of releasing the stories for political motives.
Now, yet another leak has led a bi-partisan group of members of Congress to call for investigative hearings.
That story, in the New York Times, quoted "senior administration officials" detailing classified information about an operation known as "Olympic Games," which confirmed that the U.S. and Israel had worked together to create malware, known as "Stuxnet" to attack Iran's nuclear program.
The string of damaging leaks has set back U.S. intelligence efforts significantly, experts said.
Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Steven Bucci, who spent five years as a military adviser under former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, said he was "baffled and stunned" when details regarding covert operations, some of which are still ongoing, were released publicly.
"These leaks didn't come from some GS-14 working at the NSA with a bone to pick," he said. "The information must have come from senior officials within the Obama administration and this is a highly charged political election year."
Bucci said it is imperative that Congress investigate the leaks. However, he has little hope that those who approved the leaks will be prosecuted.
"In the short run these leaks give away tactics, technology, procedures and lead the enemy to others who may be working covertly for us," said Bucci, who is now a senior researcher fellow for defense and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation. "Worse, we lose credibility with our allies who trust that we are not going to expose their missions or operatives. We also negate the possibility of doing joint actions with them in the future."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Sunday the Justice Department should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Stuxnet leak. He told CNN's "State of the Union," "Our intelligence people say this is the worst breach they've ever seen. It's very clear that this information had to come from this administration. It couldn't have come from anywhere else." McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the leaks are to boost Obama's image in an election year.
Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the intelligence committee, has also called for a hearing into the leaks.
Bucci said even if the FBI is investigating the leaks, the damage has been done. He said the unnamed U.S. officials quoted in the New York Times story, admitted for the first time that the U.S. launched a "real malware, spyware attack on another country."
"What position are we in now to tell other countries what they're supposed to do or not to do? The operation itself, was worth the risk ... But we've lost the moral high ground by exposing it."
In the face of growing criticism, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder appointed two U.S. attorneys, Ronald Machen Jr., of the District of Columbia, and Rod Rosenstein, of Maryland, to investigate the leaks. Holder said both men would be "fully authorized to prosecute criminal violations discovered as a result of their investigation."
A U.S. military official, who works in Afghanistan and is familiar with the use of covert sources, said revealing operational procedures is devastating to intelligence gathering efforts.
"As soon as al Qaeda in Yemen read the stories, everyone close to the operative in the cell became suspect," he said. "We not only put other sources at risk but imagine the difficulty any other spy will have trying to infiltrate these tribal terrorist cells. My guess, it will be almost impossible."
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.