Image: File photo shows the lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia
Larry Downing / Reuters

TODAY   |  May 09, 2012

Would-be al-Qaida bomber was double agent

The man at the center of the alleged al-Qaida terror plot to bring down a passenger airliner headed to the United States was a double agent cooperating with the U.S. NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> double agent who helped intelligence officials foil a plot to smuggle a bomb onto a passenger plane. nbc's pete williams is our justice correspondent, pete good morning to you.

>> matt, good morning. it's hard to overstate how remarkable and how dangerous this intelligence operation was. the u.s. and its allies actually managed to insert an informant into the inner circle of the terror group that's the single most active threat to the united states . the al qaeda affiliate in yemen . by the time this most recent plt was in its final planning stages the u.s. was tracking it closely and the terrorists in yemen apparently had no idea that the person who volunteered to be the suicide bomber was secretly the informant, someone who had agreed to cooperate with an intelligence service friendly to the united states .

>> it was an amazing piece of intelligence work and no one was at risk. they were able to nip this in the bud before it got even close to as far as the christmas bomber did.

>> reporter: after the al qaeda operatives gave the informant the finished bomb representing their latest design, officials say, he then got it safely out of yemen and it was eventually turned over to the united states , where it's now being examined. members of congress, briefed on the operation, declined to provide specifics, but praised the cia and its overseas counterparts.

>> from what we were able to learn and monitor it and make sure that this was never going to make it onto a plane and actually seized the device, you couldn't have asked for more.

>> reporter: those who've seen the bomb say it's remarkably similar to this, the one worn by the 2009 underwear bomber, who tried to set off his device on an overseas flight to detroit. but this latest bomb contained improved ingredients, and two possible ways to set it off in case the first effort failed. homeland security officials say they can't be certain it would have been stopped by airport screening, but they believe it would have been caught either by the full body scanners and pat-downs, or by a combination, screening, passenger background information, and other intelligence. the first suggestion that an informant was involved came monday night when a senior administration official said, quote, we were confident that we had inside control over any plot that might have been associated with this device. on tuesday, officials continued that theme, stressing that there was never any danger to a u.s.-bound plane.

>> i want to say this device was always under control, and that no one in the united states was ever at risk because we did have control.

>> reporter: the obama administration and members of congress say they're concerned that so much information has become public, and they say they'll investigate how word of this top secret intelligence operation first began to leak last week, well before it was made public this week. ann?