While excoriating the Times for disclosing the NSA’s surveillance program, President Bush trotted out an old chestnut about the danger of leaks. He cited a 1998 newspaper story that disclosed Osama Bin Laden’s use of a satellite phone, and claimed –as many have before – that the disclosure led Bin Laden to stop using his phone. Brooke wonders if we can really blame the media for the failure to capture Bin Laden.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. In a news conference Monday, the President sought to convey the damage wrought by the New York Times story on government eavesdropping with an earlier example of media gone wild. In the late '90s, he said, U.S. intelligence was tracking Osama Bin Laden through his satellite phone.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: 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.
MARTIN SIEFF: Well, the President should fire his fact-checkers, shouldn't he? They've made a fool out of him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Martin Sieff reported that story, essentially a clip job of Bin Laden's activities, in August, 1998 in the Washington Times. In the 22nd paragraph, he noted that Bin Laden, quote, "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." There was nothing about us tracking his phone, nor was Sieff the first to mention Osama's phone.
MARTIN SIEFF: It's obvious these people were incompetent. If they'd done a Nexis/Lexis search, they would have found the earlier stories.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Namely in Time Magazine and on CNN, also CBS, and on the same day as Sieff's story, USA Today. But only Sieff gets the credit. Since 9/11, the damage he wrought has been invoked in countless newspapers, chat shows and even in the 9/11 Report, where three sources are footnoted, one with just an initial, suggesting a highly-placed intelligence official. This week it was cited again in Slate by former National Security Council staffer Daniel Benjamin. In defending the New York Times against the President's attacks this week, he wrote that the New York Times piece did not compromise U.S. intelligence but the Washington Times piece did. Quote, "If there was one piece of intelligence in the entire file on Bin Laden that might have spelled the difference between 9/11 happening or not, the satellite phone was it." But astoundingly, after years of excoriation, Sieff never felt a thing - until Benjamin's Slate story. Martin Sieff.
MARTIN SIEFF: The first I learned of it was when Benjamin attacked me by name in Slate.com this week. I think I'm long overdue for a personal apology from him.
DANIEL BENJAMIN: I will be happy to correct it, as I said, if this turns out to have been a misstatement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Daniel Benjamin, who made the same charge in his 2002 book, The Age of Sacred Terror, written with a National Security Council colleague, says he's frankly bewildered that the charge against Sieff made by so many for so long has suddenly been called into question. When he first heard it, the intelligence community was reeling.
DANIEL BENJAMIN: I have to, you know, remind you where I was at the time, which is under water in the National Security Council dealing with two embassies that had just been blown up in a strike against Afghanistan and Sudan. This was the way it was briefed to us. I don't remember anyone sitting us down and saying, "And we lost this source because of this, that and the other." It was in the torrent of information that we were getting at that point.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you had a briefing in which this Washington Times article was cited.
DANIEL BENJAMIN: No. I don't believe there was a formal briefing. What I recall was that everyone in the government at that point was saying, "We lost this fantastic source and this is why."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that just sort of a vague recollection or do you just not want to be revealing your sources and methods here with me?
DANIEL BENJAMIN: [LAUGHS] You know, for all I know, it was my boss who told me, "You heard it from the CIA." Well, we're dealing with intelligence matters. What choice did I have but to rely on, you know, having two or three sources for a piece of information like that? Look, I wrote that book with the Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the NSC, whose recollection was identical to mine.
GLENN KESSLER: It is a prime example of groupthink.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Glenn Kessler is the diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post.
GLENN KESSLER: And it's an example of how that groupthink gets out into the world without many people questioning it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, Kessler filed three pieces on the Washington Times 1998 Bin Laden story. Thursday's was headlined, "File the Bin Laden Phone Leak Under Urban Myths."
GLENN KESSLER: It's there in the 9/11 Commission Report. I've done some further research. It appears in all sorts of speeches. It's like the poster child of the danger of leaks. And, in fact, there are people that want to impose new laws on the media, and this is the main case they point to.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it possible that the Washington Times story did inspire Bin Laden to turn off his phone?
GLENN KESSLER: I don't really think so. There were a number of other publications that also mentioned that at the time. Perhaps the agency has some sort of intercept that we don't know about in which a particular al Qaeda person specifically mentions the Washington Times and says, "We've got to turn off our satellite phone." I think the more likely thing that happened is that the United States sent dozens of cruise missiles directly at Osama Bin Laden's lair and missed him by just a couple of hours, and that kind of event, rather than some reference in the 21st paragraph of a newspaper that doesn't have wide circulation, the event of the cruise missiles is what got him to change his behavior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If, in fact, the charge against the Washington Times is an urban myth, as you suggest, why do you think it's been so persistent?
GLENN KESSLER: Because it's an easy way out for people. Rather than say, "You know, we took a chance, we sent some cruise missiles at him, we missed him," it's easy for them to point to it and say, "We might have prevented 9/11 if we'd been able to listen to his satellite phone, and we weren't able to listen to his satellite phone any more because of something that the media did."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So maybe the media did and maybe they didn't. We do think that Bin Laden's still out there, and if the government can't find him, then at least it will find a good reason why. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]