A man who volunteered as a suicide bomber for a terrorist group intent on blowing up a U.S.-bound plane was working instead as an intelligence agent for Saudi Arabia, The New York Times reported Tuesday, citing American and foreign officials.
The double agent departed Yemen, traveled through the United Arab Emirates and gave the bomb and information about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to the CIA, Saudi intelligence and other foreign intelligence agencies, the newspaper said.
The bomb, which was intended to pass undetected through airport security, was given to the FBI, which was poring over it, the newspaper said.
The Times, citing officials, said the agent works for Saudi intelligence, which has "cooperated closely" with the CIA for years. The officials, who would not identify the man, said he is safe in Saudi Arabia, the newspaper reported.
Citing a senior American official, the newspaper described the device as sewn into "custom fit" underwear and able to be detonated in two ways. That redundancy may have been an attempt to ensure that an attempt to blow up a jet over Detroit in 2009, which failed because the bomb did not detonate, would not be repeated.
The primary charge in the latest device was high-grade military explosive that the Times, quoting an official, said "undoubtedly would have brought down an aircraft."
A senior administration official told CNN that officials were debating whether to release photographs of the device to law enforcement agencies.
On one side of the argument, Transportation Safety Administration screeners and law enforcement might more easily identify any similar devices made as part of the same plot, the official said.
But officials were reluctant to do so out of concern that the photographs would be leaked to the news media and that the would-be bombers would learn what law enforcement knows -- and might not know -- about the bomb's workings.
The news of the double agent might explain comments made earlier Tuesday by John Brennan, the chief White House counterterrorism adviser, who told ABC's "Good Morning America" that U.S. officials were confident they were in control of the situation leading up to the seizure of the improvised explosive device, or IED.
Brennan said that officials believe redundant security systems would have prevented any attempt at bombing a flight from succeeding, but analysts were studying the device to see whether security procedures should be adjusted.
"We're trying to make sure that we take the measures that we need to prevent any other type of IED, similarly constructed, from getting through security procedures," Brennan said.
The device investigators were studying is more sophisticated than were previous ones and represents a disconcerting advance in al Qaeda bomb-making techniques, officials said Tuesday.
"It is a device similar to the underwear bomber of 2009, but an evolution to that," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said.
The device never posed an immediate danger to air travel or the United States, she said.
But lawmakers said more such devices may exist, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, said the release of information about the device could complicate an effort to seal the long-term threat.
"If something bad happens because it was leaked too early, that's a catastrophe and it's also a crime," Rogers told CNN.
News about the device became public on Monday, about two weeks after U.S. intelligence agents thwarted the plot after receiving a tip from Saudi Arabia, a source familiar with the operation said.
Information from the double agent proved key to a CIA drone strike Sunday in Yemen that killed Fahd al Quso, 37, a senior operative of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Al-Quso was a suspect in the bombing in 2000 of the USS Cole in Yemen.
The vehicle he was in was hit by a drone strike in the Rafdh district in Shabwa province, U.S. officials said.
"I was told by the White House they are connected; they're part of the same operation," the source familiar with the operation said.
Al Quso hinted at the existence of another bomb effort in February, when he was asked whether the group had stopped exporting terrorism operations.
"The war didn't end between us and our enemies," he replied. "Wait for what is coming."
Western officials describe AQAP as al Qaeda's most dangerous affiliate.
U.S. Rep. Peter King of New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, expressed dismay that the news was public.