President Bush asserted this week that the news media published a U.S. government leak in 1998 about Osama bin Laden's use of a satellite phone, alerting the al Qaeda leader to government monitoring and prompting him to abandon the device.
The story of the vicious leak that destroyed a valuable intelligence operation was first reported by a best-selling book, validated by the Sept. 11 commission and then repeated by the president.
But it appears to be an urban myth.
The al Qaeda leader's communication to aides via satellite phone had already been reported in 1996 — and the source of the information was another government, the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan at the time.
The second time a news organization reported on the satellite phone, the source was bin Laden himself.
Causal effects are hard to prove, but other factors could have persuaded bin Laden to turn off his satellite phone in August 1998. A day earlier, the United States had fired dozens of cruise missiles at his training camps, missing him by hours.
Bush made his assertion at a news conference Monday, in which he defended his authorization of warrantless monitoring of communications between some U.S. citizens and suspected terrorists overseas. He fumed that "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." He berated the media for "revealing sources, methods and what we use the information for" and thus helping "the enemy" change its operations.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that the president was referring to an article that appeared in the Washington Times on Aug. 21, 1998, the day after the cruise missile attack, which was launched in retaliation for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa two weeks earlier. The Sept. 11 commission also cited the article as "a leak" that prompted bin Laden to stop using his satellite phone, though it noted that he had added more bodyguards and began moving his sleeping place "frequently and unpredictably" after the missile attack.
Two former Clinton administration officials first fingered the Times article in a 2002 book, "The Age of Sacred Terror." Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon wrote that after the "unabashed right-wing newspaper" published the story, bin Laden "stopped using the satellite phone instantly" and "the United States lost its best chance to find him."
The article, a profile of bin Laden, buried the information about his satellite phone in the 21st paragraph. It never said that the United States was listening in on bin Laden, as the president alleged. The writer, Martin Sieff, said yesterday that the information about the phone was "already in the public domain" when he wrote the story.
A search of media databases shows that Time magazine had first reported on Dec. 16, 1996, that bin Laden "uses satellite phones to contact fellow Islamic militants in Europe, the Middle East and Africa." Taliban officials provided the information, with one official — security chief Mulla Abdul Mannan Niazi — telling Time, "He's in high spirits."
The day before the Washington Times article was published — and the day of the attacks — CNN producer Peter Bergen appeared on the network to talk about an interview he had with bin Laden in 1997.
"He communicates by satellite phone, even though Afghanistan in some levels is back in the Middle Ages and a country that barely functions," Bergen said.
Bergen noted that as early as 1997, bin Laden's men were very concerned about electronic surveillance. "They scanned us electronically," he said, because they were worried that anyone meeting with bin Laden "might have some tracking device from some intelligence agency." In 1996, the Chechen insurgent leader Dzhokhar Dudayev was killed by a Russian missile that locked in to his satellite phone signal.
That same day, CBS reported that bin Laden used a satellite phone to give a television interview. USA Today ran a profile of bin Laden on the same day as the Washington Times's article, quoting a former U.S. official about his "fondness for his cell phone."
It was not until Sept. 7, 1998 — after bin Laden apparently stopped using his phone — that a newspaper reported that the United States had intercepted his phone calls and obtained his voiceprint. U.S. authorities "used their communications intercept capacity to pick up calls placed by bin Laden on his Inmarsat satellite phone, despite his apparent use of electronic 'scramblers,' " the Los Angeles Times reported.
Officials could not explain yesterday why they focused on the Washington Times story when other news organizations at the same time reported on the satellite phone — and that the information was not particularly newsworthy.
"You got me," said Benjamin, who was director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff at the time. "That was the understanding in the White House and the intelligence community. The story ran and the lights went out."
Lee H. Hamilton, vice chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, gave a speech in October in which he said the leak "was terribly damaging." Yesterday, he said the commission relied on the testimony of three "very responsible, very senior intelligence officers," who he said "linked the Times story to the cessation of the use of the phone." He said they described it as a very serious leak.
But Hamilton said he did not recall any discussion about other news outlets' reports. "I cannot conceive we would have singled out the Washington Times if we knew about all of the reporting," he said.
A White House official said last night the administration was confident that press reports changed bin Laden's behavior. CIA spokesman Tom Crispell declined to comment, saying the question involves intelligence sources and methods.