WASHINGTON -- A leak of the operation that kept al-Qaida bombs off jetliners headed to the United States was a criminal act that endangered national security, congressional leaders from both parties said Sunday.
Rep. Peter King, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Mike Rogers all promised investigations into how information about the mission was leaked to The Associated Press early last week.
King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told CNN's "State of the Union" the premature leak of the operation to the AP was criminal and damaging.
"The FBI has to do a full and complete investigation because this really is criminal in the literal sense of the word to leak out this type of sensitive, classified information on a really almost unparalleled penetration of the enemy," King said.
"This was more secret than any operation I'm familiar with, even more secret than [the assassination of Osama] bin Laden." Yet, "The Associated Press apparently had the entire story."
The leak put lives at risk and the operation had to be cut short, King said. "It sends a signal to countries willing to work with us that we can't be trusted to keep a secret if in fact we are the ones who leaked it out."
The bombs, intended to be smuggled aboard an aircraft undetected and then detonated, bear the forensic signature of suspected al-Qaida bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, who is believed to be hiding in Yemen with the group Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, officials have said.
"I think there was a bit of premature chest-thumping in this whole thing," Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CBS's "Face the Nation."
"No national security operation ever should be used for a headline under any circumstances," suggesting someone with ties to the intelligence community had sought political gain from the operation.
Feinstein said that Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is the top security threat to the United States and the bomb maker thought to have created the two non-metallic explosive devices -- Hassan al-Asiri -- must be killed to safeguard U.S. national security.
"I am hopeful that we will be able to, candidly, kill this bomb maker and kill some of these other associates, because there is a dangerous process in play at the present time," Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told "Fox News Sunday."
Officials have said a bomb obtained in last week's intelligence operation appears to be an upgraded version of the so-called "underwear bomb" that failed to bring down a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.
A bomber from the al-Qaida affiliate in Yemen sent to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner last month was actually a double agent who infiltrated the group and volunteered for the suicide mission, intelligence agency officials have confirmed.
Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency, working with British intelligence and the CIA, placed the operative inside al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, with the goal of convincing his handlers to give him a new type of non-metallic bomb for the mission, officials said.
Western intelligence agencies have identified AQAP as among the most dangerous and determined al-Qaida affiliates in the world, dedicated in part to attacks on the West.
The double agent arranged instead to deliver the device to U.S. and other intelligence authorities waiting outside Yemen, the officials said.
The main charge was a high-grade military explosive that "undoubtedly would have brought down an aircraft," The New York Times reported, citing a senior U.S. official.
Feinstein said the leak early last week on the operation to the AP "is very serious."
"The leak did endanger sources and methods, and the leak I think has to be prosecuted," the senator said.
" ... It gives a tip off to AQAP to be more careful about who they use as their couriers, as their bombers. ... Criminal charges will go to the Department of Justice."
Feinstein was asked if current screening technology would identify this kind of bomb on an airline passenger. "For this particular material," she said, "candidly, no.
"I think Americans have to understand that this particular kind of explosive, non-metallic, is not easily detectable."
Consequently the flying public is going to have to tolerate more invasive searches, she said. "The American public has not been terribly sympathetic" to this, she said, but "it's very important that TSA [the Transportation Security Administration] keeps up its efforts."
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