White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders just accused the media of hindering the American government's pursuit of Osama bin Laden just a few years before 9/11. But she may want to check her evidence.
While defending Trump supporters' vulgar treatment of a CNN reporter at a rally Tuesday night in Florida, Sanders argued that the media has a responsibility to report accurately because the stakes are so large. But rather than dwell upon recent examples of supposedly shoddy reporting, like she usually does, she went back 20 years, to 1998.
“The media routinely reports on classified information and government secrets that put lives in danger and risk valuable national security tools,” Sanders said, clearly reading a prepared bit of gaslighting. “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.”
Except this has been pretty well debunked — and Sanders's version of it is particularly flawed. The Post's Glenn Kessler fact-checked this claim even before he became The Post's Fact Checker. At the time, back in 2005, both President George W. Bush and the 9/11 Commission had offered a version of it.
Basically, they argued that an Aug. 21, 1998, story in the Washington Times tipped bin Laden off to the fact that his phone was being used to track his whereabouts. But the causality wasn't so clear, as Kessler reported, and bin Laden's use of the phone had actually been previously reported, including two years before by Time magazine.
As Kessler reported in 2005:
The 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.
Jack Shafer, meanwhile, reported on several other instances that suggested bin Laden's use of the phone was well-known at the time — including an on-air CNN report the day before the Washington Times story ran.
What's more, as Kessler reported, it wasn't reported that the phone had actually been surveilled until after bin Laden stopped using it.
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.
So when Sanders says the media reported “on the U.S. ability to listen to Osama bin Laden's satellite phone” before he stopped using it, she's simply wrong. The Washington Times and Time magazine reports merely said that he used a satellite phone.
It's still tempting to draw a causal line, given the proximity of the Washington Times report and bin Laden's decision to abandon the device. And it was certainly tempting for Bush to do that when he was upset at the media — just like Sanders is today.
But that would require believing bin Laden reviewed the Washington Times and not the much-more-prominent Time magazine. A more motivating potential factor for changing his behavior would seem to have been the cruise missile attack — which indicated the United States knew where he had been. As Shafer noted, it didn't exactly require a huge logical leap to think such phones could be used to track movements.
When Kessler published his fact check, those who pushed the theory seemed to back off it. “You got me,” said Daniel Benjamin, who was on the National Security Council at the time and co-wrote a 2002 book recounting the episode. “That was the understanding in the White House and the intelligence community. The story ran, and the lights went out.”
And 9/11 Commission Vice Chairman Lee Hamilton even conceded the commission missed the earlier reports. “I cannot conceive we would have singled out the Washington Times if we knew about all of the reporting,” he said.
Sanders's story will be plausible enough that Trump's media-hating supporters will buy into it — and potentially even blame the media, by extension, for 9/11 (which seems to be the aim here). But if she was searching for a case of clear media malfeasance, she missed the mark.