A small private intelligence company that monitors Islamic terrorist groups obtained a new Osama bin Laden video ahead of its official release last month, and around 10 a.m. on Sept. 7, it notified the Bush administration of its secret acquisition. It gave two senior officials access on the condition that the officials not reveal they had it until the al-Qaeda release.
Within 20 minutes, a range of intelligence agencies had begun downloading it from the companyâ€™s Web site. By midafternoon that day, the video and a transcript of its audio track had been leaked from within the Bush administration to cable television news and broadcast worldwide.
The founder of the company, the SITE Intelligence Group, says this premature disclosure tipped al-Qaeda to a security breach and destroyed a years-long surveillance operation that the company has used to intercept and pass along secret messages, videos and advance warnings of suicide bombings from the terrorist groupâ€™s communications network.
â€œTechniques that took years to develop are now ineffective and worthless,â€ said Rita Katz, the firmâ€™s 44-year-old founder, who has garnered wide attention by publicizing statements and videos from extremist chat rooms and Web sites, while attracting controversy over the secrecy of SITEâ€™s methodology. Her firm provides intelligence about terrorist groups to a wide range of paying clients, including private firms and military and intelligence agencies from the United States and several other countries.
The release of the Osama tape turned out to be even less significant than first thought. At the time, the tape clearly intended to coordinate the launch of at least three terrorist attacks in the second week of September. The effort was timed to coincide with September 11th, the sixth anniversary of 9/11. The leaks put the tapes out days earlier, and in the meantime, Western agencies had already rolled up the cells planning the attacks.
The US government insists that the leak did no real damage to their intel capabilities. However, the two independent reports, especially Lake’s, demonstrates at least a temporary setback in acccessing AQ’s Internet activities. If the reports are true, then SITE and the intel agencies will have to rediscover AQ’s network of servers, figure out how to hack back into the networks, and re-establish the identities of those who run them. That could take a very long time, and in the interim, we could be missing some vital information.
… the disclosure from ABC and later other news organizations tipped off Qaeda’s internal security division that the organization’s Internet communications system, known among American intelligence analysts as Obelisk, was compromised. …
… One intelligence officer who requested anonymity said in an interview last week that the intelligence community watched in real time the shutdown of the Obelisk system. America’s Obelisk watchers even saw the order to shut down the system delivered from Qaeda’s internal security to a team of technical workers in Malaysia. That was the last internal message America’s intelligence community saw. “We saw the whole thing shut down because of this leak,” the official said. “We lost an important keyhole into the enemy.”
No one is saying who leaked the video. But according to Warrick of WaPo, SITE founder Katz had decided to offer an advance copy of the video to the White House, free of charge, so that the Bushies would be prepared for its release. Katz spoke first to White House counsel Fred Fielding. At about 10 a.m. on September 7, Katz sent an email to Fielding and to Michael Leiter of the National Counterterrorism Center. The email contained a link to the video on a private SITE web page as well as an English translation of the video.
Exactly what happened next is unclear. But within minutes of Katz’s e-mail to the White House, government-registered computers began downloading the video from SITE’s server, according to a log of file transfers. The records show dozens of downloads over the next three hours from computers with addresses registered to defense and intelligence agencies.
By midafternoon, several television news networks reported obtaining copies of the transcript. A copy posted around 3 p.m. on Fox News’s Web site referred to SITE and included page markers identical to those used by the group. “This confirms that the U.S. government was responsible for the leak of this document,” Katz wrote in an e-mail to Leiter at 5 p.m.
Of course, it goes without saying that the outlet that the Bush administration leaked the video to was Fox News, ensuring that the publicâ€™s first impression of the video would be presented by an outlet that would attempt to tie bin Laden to the Democrats (VIDEO).
You don’t have to be a fly on the Oval Office wall to know what happened. September 7 was the Friday before General Petraeus’s testimony to Congress, and conventional wisdom of the moment was that nothing Petraeus would say would change anyone’s minds about the surge, one way or another. Clearly, the White House needed a propaganda tool to amp up the fear factor. And lo, Katz dropped just the thing right in the Bushies’ laps.
Al Qaeda was the main theme for the White House just then. The September 8 radio address was all about al Qaeda. September 11 was, of course, our annual Let’s Be Afraid of al Qaeda Day. On September 13 the President gave one of his rare prime-time addresses to the nation about how we have to stay in Iraq to achieve victory over al Qaeda.
You might ask, what does it profit us to fight al Qaeda in Iraq if we’re going to trash our own intelligence about al Qaeda? Oh, my dears, we must see the big picture. The big picture is not that we support the war to defeat al Qaeda; rather, we use al Qaeda to support the war. Keep it straight.
Update: Will Bunch writes,
In this case, in particular, Bush was clearly eager to use the bin Laden video — just hours after it was leaked to the media — to make political points on the issue that dominated the news that week, the run-up to the report by General David Petraeus, and Bush’s campaign for a long-term troop presence in Iraq. Check out how quickly Bush “seized” on the leaked bin Laden video on Sept. 9 of this year, at the Asian ecomomic summit in Sydney, Australia (from Agence France Presse, via Nexis):
On his final day here, he seized on a new video from terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, who called for escalating the insurgency in Iraq, to argue that if the Al-Qaeda chief thinks Iraq is important, so should the US public.
“I find it interesting that on the tape, Iraq was mentioned, which is a reminder that Iraq is a part of this war against extremists,” Bush said after the release of the video, bin Laden’s first in three years.
In the tape the Al-Qaeda chief marks six years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with a pledge “to continue to escalate the killing and fighting against you” in Iraq.
This is so wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. As has been well-documented over the last couple months, Bush has shamelessly tried to seed confusion over the role of a newer group called al-Qaeda in Iraq — with no direct link to bin Laden, which didn’t exist in 2003 and would not have if the U.S. hadn’t invaded the country — while downplaying the true nature of the Iraq insurgency, which is largely homegrown or supported by our supposed ally, Saudi Arabia.
That blatant misleading of the American public is bad enough, but now that we learn in trying to salvage his failed Iraq policy and score a few cheap political points, the Bush White House was willing to casually undermine a successful spying operation against the terrorists who really did attack American soil. Some called it betrayal, even treason, when Bush aides outed an covert CIA operative, Valerie Plame, but at first blush it looks like this shameful ploy was 10 times worse — putting many more American lives at risk than just one undercover agent.
As you’ve probably noticed, there’s been a lot of debate about the meaning of the word “betrayal” lately. Let’s be clear what this is. The leak of the bin Laden video wasn’t carelessness. It was a betrayal, a betrayal by the president of the United States and his aides of the worst kind — for politics’ sake.
Update 2: This partisan hack at Newsbusters blames ABC for alerting al Qaeda to the leak in their communications system. I swear, there are days I think you could clear out the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum and re-populate it with the Right Blogosphere, and no one would know the difference.