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U.S. leak 'harms al Qaeda sting'

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Islamabad says an important counterterror operation has been compromised by Washington.

A tip from a terror suspect held in Pakistan may have led to at least one of the 12 terror suspects arrested in Britain.

Sources: Suspect arrested in Britain is a major al Qaeda player.
Acts of terror
United States

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- The effort by U.S. officials to justify raising the terror alert level last week may have shut down an important source of information that has already led to a series of al Qaeda arrests, Pakistani intelligence sources have said.

Until U.S. officials leaked the arrest of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan to reporters, Pakistan had been using him in a sting operation to track down al Qaeda operatives around the world, the sources said.

In background briefings with journalists last week, unnamed U.S. government officials said it was the capture of Khan that provided the information that led Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to announce a higher terror alert level.

Khan is a computer expert who officials said helped Osama bin Laden communicate with his terror network.

Investigators found detailed surveillance information on certain targets in the United States, apparently conducted by al Qaeda operatives, on Khan's computer disks.

The unnamed U.S. officials leaked Khan's name along with confirmation that most of the surveillance data was three or four years old, arguing that its age was irrelevant because al Qaeda planned attacks so far in advance.

Law enforcement sources said some of the intelligence gleaned from the arrests of Khan and others gave phone numbers and e-mail addresses that the FBI and other agencies were using to try to track down any al Qaeda operatives in the United States.

Then on Friday, after Khan's name was revealed, government sources told CNN that counterterrorism officials had seen a drop in intercepted communications among suspected terrorists.

Officials used Sunday's talk shows to defend last week's heightened alerts, amid widespread claims the White House disclosed Khan's arrest to justify raising its terror alert level. (Full story)

But some observers have said that Islamabad should not have been compromised by political considerations in Washington.

One senator told CNN that U.S. officials should have kept Khan's role quiet.

"You always want to know the evidence," said Sen. George Allen.

"In this situation, in my view, they should have kept their mouth shut and just said, 'We have information, trust us.' "

Sen. Charles Schumer said he was "troubled" by the decision to identify Khan.

He said the public learned little from reports of Khan's role, "and it seems to me they shouldn't have put this name out."

"The Pakistani interior minister, Faisal Hayat, as well as the British home secretary, David Blunkett, have expressed displeasure in fairly severe terms that Khan's name was released, because they were trying to track down other contacts of his," Schumer told CNN.

Looking forward

But Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad downplayed the effect of the U.S. "outing" of Khan, saying Islamabad is looking forward and not back.

"We are moving towards the positive side," he said. "We've got positive information and we believe there will be positive results."

Pakistan continued its crackdown over the weekend, going after multiple al Qaeda cells around the world.

They are on the manhunt for two North African al Qaeda operatives -- Abu Farj of Libya and an Egyptian named Hamza -- who are connected to Ahman Khalfan Ghailani, who was arrested in late July.

Meanwhile, an al Qaeda operative believed to have been close to bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was flown home to Pakistan after he was arrested in Dubai, intelligence sources said. (Senior figure arrested)

Pakistani intelligence officials said information provided by Khan not only contributed to the rise in the U.S. terror alert level but also led to 13 arrests on terrorism charges in Britain.

Four of the 13 have since been released, but British police have been given until Tuesday to question the remaining nine. (Full story)

British officials declined to comment.

CNN Correspondent Maria Ressa contributed to this report

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