The president of the United States, the 9/11 commission, and Slate contributor Daniel Benjamin have all blamed the Washington Times for publishing a "leak" in an Aug. 21, 1998, story they believe damaged U.S. security. The Washington Times story, "Terrorist Is Driven By Hatred for U.S., Israel," purportedly alerted Osama Bin Laden to the fact that the United States knew about his satellite phone use, and by doing so diminished the capacity to monitor him.
President Bush most recently crabbed about the leak in his Monday press conference. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler confirmed with the White House that Bush was talking about the Washington Times story when he said:
And then the fact that we were following Osama bin Laden because he was using a certain type of telephone made it into the press as the result of a leak. And guess what happened? Saddam—Osama bin Laden changed his behavior. He began to change how he communicated.
The 9/11 commission made the same claim in its report, stating on Page 127:
Worst of all, al Qaeda's senior leadership had stopped using a particular means of communication almost immediately after a leak to the Washington Times.
What exactly did the Washington Times report? The passage to which the 9/11 commission, the president, and Benjamin's book refer reads:
He keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones and has given occasional interviews to international news organizations, including Time magazine and CNN News.
I'm prepared to believe that Bin Laden—or at least his open-source intelligence center—read the newspaper controlled by convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon as part of their daily news diet, and then turned off their satellite phones and computers after reading the controversial story. The paper's reputation for breaking intelligence stories might, indeed, make it a must-read in al-Qaida circles. But before I'm willing to point fingers, I'd like to see a stronger chain of causation.
To begin with, isn't it a no-brainer that Bin Laden, camped out in the wilds of Afghanistan in August 1998, would rely on satellite phones and computers if he wanted to communicate in real time with his network? What else was he going to use? Passenger pigeons and the pony express? The Afghanistan phone system doesn't do mountain lairs.
Even if Bin Laden's satellite phone was considered a state secret, it wasn't very well kept. The Washington Times wasn't the first news organization to report on it. Boarding the Nexis Wayback Machine, we find a reference to Bin Laden's satphone in a Time magazine story titled "Home Away From Home: The Taliban Allow a Top 'Sponsor' of Terrorism to Stay In Afghanistan." The story appeared in the Dec. 16, 1996, edition, but because Time cover-dates its issues a week in advance, it actually appeared Dec. 9, 1996. It reads:
[Osama Bin Laden] uses satellite phones to contact fellow Islamic militants in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "He's in high spirits," says a Taliban security chief, Mulla Abdul Mannan Niazi.
Japan's Daily Yomiuri quoted the Time revelation later that month (Dec. 30), and Time repeated its finding 20 months later in its Aug. 24, 1998, issue (newsstand date Aug. 17—four days before the Washington Times story). The news hook for the Time article was the Aug. 7, 1998, African embassy bombings by al-Qaida. From Time's lede paragraph:
He keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones and gives occasional interviews to international news organizations including TIME and CNN.
(If you're paying close attention, you'll note the similarities between Time's wording and that of the later Washington Times story.)
Who else had the story? On Aug. 20, 1998, the day President Clinton bombed Bin Laden in Afghanistan, then-CNN producer Peter Bergen appeared on his network as a talking head. He had interviewed Bin Laden in Afghanistan in March 1997 and portrayed the Bin Laden gang as technologically savvy, saying:
They scanned us electronically to make sure we didn't have any kind of tracking device; they're very concerned about anybody who might meet bin Laden, might have some tracking device from some intelligence agency. These people are fairly sophisticated. The guy has a fair amount of money. He communicates by satellite phone, even though Afghanistan in some levels is back in the middle ages and a country that barely functions. Bin Laden has been able to function fairly well there.
On Aug. 21, 1998—the same day the Washington Times story appeared—Deutsche Presse-Agentur ran a story citing a report in Islamabad's Daily News. It said that minutes before U.S. missiles hit the terrorist camps, Osama Bin Laden had called for a continued jihad through Ayman Al-Zawahiri. From the Deutsche Presse-Agentur story:
Osama bin Laden, described by President Clinton as a "pre-eminent" terrorist, however denied that he was behind the August 7 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa which prompted the missile attack, the paper said, quoting his Egyptian confidant, Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
Zawahiri conveyed Osama's "message" to the daily's correspondent in Peshawar using a satellite phone "somewhere in Afghanistan," barely 30 minutes before the missile attack was launched against his "terrorist base" in Khowst in eastern Afghanistan.
The Philadelphia Daily News gives the terrorist's name a unique spelling in this Aug. 21 account:
Unlike the highly secretive Carlos and other typical bomb-throwers, bin Landen doesn't get his hands dirty.
His tools are computers, fax machines, satellite phones and a terrorist network with a global reach.
The next day, Aug. 22, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman obliquely refers to Osama Bin Laden's satphone in a column about jihadists, writing:
And globalization, through its rapid spread of technologies, also super-empowers them to do just that. It makes it much easier to travel, move money or communicate by satellite phones or Internet. Ramzi Yousef kept track of all his plots on a Toshiba laptop. Osama bin Laden was running a multinational JOL, Jihad Online.
Daniel Benjamin, who was a National Security Council staffer from 1994 to 1998, says he's willing to believe that the information wasn't leaked, but adds, "In our office and our sphere of operations this [the Washington Times piece] was understood to be the story responsible for him turning off his phone."
Perhaps the intelligence establishment has conclusive evidence up its sleeve that proves the Washington Times article caused Bin Laden to abandon his satphone. But that would mean that 1) Bin Laden and his people didn't read about it in either Time article; and 2) they didn't hear Peter Bergen make reference to it on CNN the day before the Washington Times published its story. Also, by 1996 your garden variety terrorist already knew from reading press accounts that he could be tracked—and killed, as Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev was—by the signal emitted by his satphone.
Any way you look at it, the satphone facts were in the public domain the week the Washington Times published its story. For Bush—or anybody else—to blame the story on a leak just doesn't hold water.
Addendum, Dec. 22, 12:26 a.m.: Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post digs up more on this subject in "File the Bin Laden Phone Leak Under 'Urban Myths.' "