Osama Bin Laden and the Leak That Wasn't

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

In his news conference yesterday, President Bush twice pointed to the same example to express his concern about the danger of newspaper leaks -- Osama bin Laden's phone.

"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," the president said. "And guess what happened? Saddam -- Osama bin Laden changed his behavior. He began to change how he communicated."

Later, the president repeated the example and decried what he called "revealing sources, methods and what we use the information for" as helping "the enemy" change its behavior.

But the reality is more complicated.

The White House says the president was referring to a profile of the al Qaeda leader that appeared in the Washington Times on Aug. 21, 1998. In the 21st paragraph, the article stated: "He keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones and has given occasional interviews to international news organizations."

The information in the article does not appear to be based on any government leak and made no reference to government surveillance of bin Laden's phone.

But the relatively minor bit of detail had a big impact on bin Laden. "He stopped using the satellite phone instantly," wrote Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in their book "The Age of Sacred Terror," and thus "the United States lost its best chance to find him."

-- Glenn Kessler

© 2005 The Washington Post Company