(AP/Mark Lennihan)

UPDATE  NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan critiques paper on this.   For further updates and frequent posts every day see my blog Pressing Issues.

Yesterday morning the top story at the New York Times site reported on US analysts feeling that the early-August leak to the media on how Al Qaeda communicates had done more to harm our anti-terrorism effort than anything revealed by Edward Snowden. You remember: we briefly closed some of our embassies, for starters.

And the Times quickly recounted how it refused to publish the names that were key in the information, at the request of the government, and only did so after our security folks had given them clearance—after the McClatchy news outlet went with it.

The communication intercepts between Mr. Zawahri and Mr. Wuhayshi revealed what American intelligence officials and lawmakers have described as one of the most serious plots against American and other Western interests since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It prompted the closing of 19 United States Embassies and consulates for a week, when the authorities ultimately concluded that the plot focused on the embassy in Yemen.

McClatchy Newspapers first reported on the conversations between Mr. Zawahri and Mr. Wuhayshi on Aug. 4. Two days before that, the New York Times agreed to withhold the identities of the Qaeda leaders after senior American intelligence officials said the information could jeopardize their operations. After the government became aware of the McClatchy article, it dropped its objections to the Times’s publishing the same information, and the newspaper did so on Aug. 5.

This was a rather serious claim against rival McClatchy, so I awaited some kind of response. Now McClatchy hits back at the Times in this report.

For example: “McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief James Asher said: ‘We believe that if the Yemenis knew that the United States had intercepted conversations between two al Qaida honchos, Americans should as well.’” More:

Ever since that report, the Times article said, terrorists had stopped using “a major communications channel” that U.S. officials had been monitoring and that intelligence officials “have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaida’s leaders and operatives.”

Asher, in a statement, said that in the nearly two months since McClatchy had published its story, no U.S. agency has contacted the newspaper company about the article or has asked any questions about the origins of the story.

“Multiple sources inside and outside of the Yemeni government confirmed our reporting and not one of them told us not to publish the facts,” Asher said.

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert and the author of “The Last Refuge,” a book on al Qaida in Yemen, backed Asher’s assessment, saying that he had been told before the McClatchy report that Zawahiri and Wuhayshi were the two men who’d been monitored and that many people in Yemen knew the details of the communication. Johnsen had made a similar statement to McClatchy in early August.

“The idea that the identities of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri are responsible for the difficulties the U.S. is having in tracking al Qaida and AQAP is laughable,” Johnsen said Monday, referring to the Yemen al Qaida affiliate by its initials. “The U.S. publicly closed 19 embassies, the participation of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri was well known in Yemen. I was told about it prior to McClatchy publishing it. And once the leaks start from the U.S. government they can be hard to stop or to control.”

Robert Scheer explores the differences between state-sanctioned leaks and those from whistleblowers like Edward Snowden.