Don't Blame the Washington Times
For the Osama Bin Laden satellite phone "leak."
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: