By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005
The allegation that news organizations leaked information about Osama bin Laden's satellite phone, thus shutting down a valuable source of intelligence that might have prevented the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, has long been a prime case study cited by government officials seeking to impose greater restrictions on the news media.
President Bush drew attention to the case Monday when he twice cited it as a dangerous example of the news media "revealing sources, methods and what we use the information for." Bush was basing his remarks on a conclusion by the Sept. 11 commission, which had labeled it a "leak" that prompted the al Qaeda leader to turn off his phone.
Upon closer examination, the story turned out to be wrong. Bin Laden's use of a satellite phone had already been widely reported by August 1998, and he stopped using it within days of a cruise missile attack on his training camps in Afghanistan.
Yet in recent years, advocates of new laws that would restrict the ability of the news media to report on intelligence matters have repeatedly cited the case of bin Laden's satellite phone as an especially dangerous example of media malfeasance.
In July, Rep, Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, gave a speech titled "Secrets and Leaks: the Costs and Consequences for National Security," in which he highlighted the bin Laden case. "Were it not for a leak, there is a chance we could have brought Osama bin Laden to justice by now and have a better understanding of the al Qaeda operation," said Hoekstra, who is considering legislation to make it easier to prosecute leakers.
A spokesman for Hoekstra did not return a call seeking comment.
Hoekstra has distributed to lawmakers a classified report on leaks compiled by James B. Bruce, vice chairman of the CIA's Foreign Denial and Deception Committee, and a leading advocate of enacting very tough laws on leaks. In 2002, Bruce was quoted as saying that "we've got to do whatever it takes -- if it takes sending SWAT teams into journalists' homes -- to stop these leaks."
Bruce has also repeatedly cited the bin Laden example as he made the case for new laws to stem leaks, such as making journalists and news organizations liable for prosecution if they report classified information or obtain classified documents.
"Important intelligence collection capabilities against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were lost in the several year period leading to 9/11," Bruce told the American Bar Association on Nov. 22, 2002, saying the bin Laden case was "just the tip of the iceberg" of how disclosures hurt the campaign against terrorism. He did not cite other examples.
Former deputy defense secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz mentioned bin Laden's phone in September 2002, saying it was an example of how "our intelligence sources and methods have also been devaluated by a pattern of leaks from the executive and legislative branches of government and through a number of well-known espionage cases."
Bruce, who did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment, was a staff member of the 2005 Robb-Silberman Commission on Intelligence Capabilities, which included a classified annex that detailed leaks "that have collectively cost the American people millions of dollars." A source said one of those cases is that of bin Laden's phone.
Several commissioners declined to comment, except to say there were several incidents that showed significant damage to U.S. intelligence.
Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said the bin Laden case shows that the news media may play less of a role in intelligence failures than is often assumed. "Cruise missiles concentrate the mind a lot more than news clips do," he said. "It is the underlying reality, not the leaks, that does most of the damage."