Leak Severed a Link to Al-Qaeda's Secrets
Tuesday, October 9, 2007; 2:42 PM
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.[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Within 20 minutes, a range of intelligence agencies had begun downloading it from the company'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 group's communications network.
"Techniques that took years to develop are now ineffective and worthless," said Rita Katz, the firm'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 SITE'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 precise source of the leak remains unknown. Government officials declined to be interviewed about the circumstances on the record, but they did not challenge Katz's version of events. They also said the incident had no effect on U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts and did not diminish the government's ability to anticipate attacks.
While acknowledging that SITE had achieved success, the officials said U.S. agencies have their own sophisticated means of watching al-Qaeda on the Web. "We have individuals in the right places dealing with all these issues, across all 16 intelligence agencies," said Ross Feinstein, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
But privately, some intelligence officials called the incident regrettable, and one official said SITE had been "tremendously helpful" in ferreting out al-Qaeda secrets over time.
In an off-camera news briefing Tuesday morning, Frances Fragos Townsend, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, said the White House has not conducted an investigation of the alleged SITE leak but expected the director of national intelligence (DNI) to do so.
"We are only going to be successful in the war on terror with the help of the American people," Townsend said. " . . . Anytime an individual or a commercial entity cooperates with us, and asks to be protected and doesn't get the protection that they either sought or deserved, that's a cause for concern."
"Frankly, this is going to be an issue for the DNI to look at so that we can understand what, if anything, happened, and how to deal with it to ensure that we fully protect those who cooperate with us," she said. "The DNI and the Intelligence Committee will need to look at who had access to it -- I mean, it's sort of the typical kind of leak investigation that will have to be considered and acted on as appropriately determined by the DNI."
The al-Qaeda video aired on Sept. 7 attracted international attention as the first new video message from the group's leader in three years. In it, a dark-bearded bin Laden urges Americans to convert to Islam and predicts failure for the Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan. The video was aired on hundreds of Western news Web sites nearly a full day before its release by a distribution company linked to al-Qaeda.
Computer logs and records reviewed by The Washington Post support SITE's claim that it snatched the video from al-Qaeda days beforehand. Katz requested that the precise date and details of the acquisition not be made public, saying such disclosures could reveal sensitive details about the company's methods.