WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of a congressional intelligence panel said on Wednesday he was concerned that the Obama administration did not brief members of Congress earlier about the foiled underwear bomb plot and said it raised a whiff of election-year politics.
The comments by Mike Rogers, chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, came as a senior U.S. intelligence official said the intelligence community has begun an "internal review" into possible leaks of classified information about the "underwear bomb" operation. The review is not considered at this point to be an investigation, which would have criminal implications.
Rogers, a Republican who heads the House panel that conducts oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies and operations, said not informing Congress about covert operations would break the law and he was starting a preliminary review. Rogers said he was first informed about the foiled plot on Monday and added that it should have been brought to his attention much earlier.
U.S. officials revealed publicly on Monday that the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, tried to arm a suicide bomber with a non-metallic device, an upgraded version of the "underwear bomb" carried onto a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day 2009.
They said the plot was foiled by the CIA and allied foreign intelligence services. Officials say the intelligence operation was revealed prematurely because of a media report.
"Our concern is the fact that it was leaked, and we need to determine if there was a conscious decision not to engage the intelligence committee, because by statute they are supposed to," Rogers said in a telephone interview.
"If it wasn't covert action, it was close to covert action, which means the committees are supposed to be notified and involved and we weren't and that troubles me. I've never seen this before, by the way," Rogers said.
Preston Golson, a CIA spokesman, responded: "CIA works very hard to keep Congress informed; we take that responsibility very seriously."
OPERATION REVEALED PREMATURELY
Rogers said he was conducting a "preliminary review" of the media leak and the decision not to brief Congress earlier.
"It's the funny season," Rogers said. "I hope it hasn't, but it sure smacks of some chest-thumping in a political narrative, and that is really dangerous stuff when people decide that they are going to do that."
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, rejected the contention that publication of the counter-terrorism success was politically motivated.
"This is just totally wrong," the official said. "First of all, the notion that this was an intentional leak is ludicrous. We actually fought to prevent this information from coming out."
The premature revelation of the operation had consequences, Rogers said.
"This is one of those things that shouldn't have been talked about because this operation could have gone on for some time and it would have been important to find out the full length of that operation versus when it was cut off by a leak," he said.
Another U.S. official said the CIA and foreign partners running the intelligence operation which turned up the improved underwear bomb had intended for the undercover informant to continue his work for some time to come, but this plan was abandoned when it became clear too much information had leaked to the media.
Two U.S. sources differed on how much damage was done, with one saying a lot of damage was done and another saying the major objective of the operation was accomplished with the seizure of the bomb.
The FBI at its lab at Quantico, Virginia, was studying the device, which U.S. officials say bears the hallmarks of fugitive Saudi militant Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, suspected of being a bomb-maker working with AQAP.
Rogers and other U.S. officials said while there was no concrete evidence, there was some concern that other bombs were manufactured. "I don't think there is anything specific. ... But you know through the way that they do their processes it is likely that they didn't build just one," Rogers said.
"No one can look you in the eye and say I know there is more, but you can come to a high degree of confidence that they didn't just build one because we know how they did it before."
He said AQAP keeps trying to attack the U.S. air transportation system because "they think of it as a spectacular event that they understand would have economic consequences as well as terror consequences. In their mind it's a two-fer."
(Editing by Todd Eastham and Eric Walsh)