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File the Bin Laden Phone Leak Under 'Urban Myths'
"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.