“One of the worst cases was the reporting on the U.S. ability to listen to Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone in the late ’90s. Because of that reporting, he stopped using that phone and the country lost valuable intelligence.”
— White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, remarks at a news briefing, Aug. 1, 2018

Sanders made these comments while pushing back against suggestions that President Trump tolerates his supporters menacing reporters at his rallies. She said that he supports a free press but that there also is responsibility on the part of the media.

“The media routinely reports on classified information and government secrets that put lives in danger and risk valuable national security tools,” she lectured. “This has happened both in our administration and in past administrations.” Then she dropped the bin Laden example.

We hope she was not suggesting reporters were responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. As it turns out, in 2005, we had fact-checked this claim in a previous life as a diplomatic correspondent, after President George W. Bush made a similar statement.

Like a zombie, this false claim won’t die. Here are excerpts from our previous report, updated to account for Sanders’s statement.

The Facts

Sanders is repeating this bogus talking point: The news media published a U.S. government leak in 1998 about Osama bin Laden’s use of a satellite phone, alerting the al-Qaeda leader to government monitoring and prompting him to abandon the device.

The story of the vicious leak that destroyed a valuable intelligence operation was first reported by a best-selling book and then supposedly validated by the Sept. 11 commission. But it’s wrong.

The late al-Qaeda leader’s communication to aides via satellite phone had already been reported in 1996 — and the source of the information was another government, the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan at the time.

The second time a news organization reported on the satellite phone, the source was bin Laden himself.

Causal effects are hard to prove, but other factors could have persuaded bin Laden to turn off his satellite phone in August 1998. A day earlier, the United States had fired dozens of cruise missiles at his training camps, missing him by hours.

The apparent source of Sanders’s claim is an article that appeared in the Washington Times on Aug. 21, 1998, the day after the cruise missile attack, which was launched in retaliation for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa two weeks earlier.

Two Clinton administration officials first pointed to the Washington Times article in a 2002 book, “The Age of Sacred Terror.” Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon wrote that after the “unabashed right-wing newspaper” published the story, bin Laden “stopped using the satellite phone instantly” and “the United States lost its best chance to find him.”

The Sept. 11 commission also had cited the article as “a leak” that prompted bin Laden to stop using his satellite phone, although it noted that he had added more bodyguards and began moving his sleeping place “frequently and unpredictably” after the missile attack.

The Washington Times article, a profile of bin Laden, buried the information about his satellite phone in the 21st paragraph. It never said that the United States was listening in on bin Laden, as Sanders claimed. The writer, Martin Sieff, told The Washington Post in 2005 that the information about the phone was “already in the public domain” when he wrote the story.

A search of media databases shows that Time magazine first reported on Dec. 16, 1996, that bin Laden “uses satellite phones to contact fellow Islamic militants in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.” Taliban officials provided the information, with one official — security chief Mulla Abdul Mannan Niazi — telling Time, “He’s in high spirits.”

The day before the Washington Times article was published — and the day of the attacks — CNN producer Peter Bergen appeared on the network to talk about an interview he conducted with bin Laden in 1997.

“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 on to his satellite phone signal.

That same day, CBS reported that bin Laden used a satellite phone to give a television interview. USA Today published a profile of bin Laden on the same day the Washington Times article was published, quoting a former U.S. official about his “fondness for his cell phone.”

It was not until Sept. 7, 1998, 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 who had cited the supposed leak could not explain in 2005 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 had been Clinton’s director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council. “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 2005 in which he said the leak “was terribly damaging.” 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.

(In 2008, a report by two former federal prosecutors for Human Rights First said court records showed that bin Laden stopped using the phone on Oct. 9, 1998, more than a month after the Washington Times article. “The phone’s use had dropped off dramatically after August 21, 1998, which was the day after the U.S. cruise missile attack on Bin Laden,” the report noted. A footnote cited our 2005 report and said the cruise missile attacks “would have likely have caused him to be more circumspect about using the phone.”)

The Pinocchio Test

The White House needs to do better research before condemning the media. A quick Google search would have found our original debunking of this urban myth, so Sanders would not have been left with egg on her face. She earns Four Pinocchios.

Four Pinocchios

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“One of the worst cases was the reporting on the U.S. ability to listen to Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone in the late ’90s. Because of that reporting, he stopped using that phone and the country lost valuable intelligence.”
at a news briefing
Wednesday, August 1, 2018