The September 11 commission falsely singled out The Washington Times for damaging an intelligence operation by disclosing in 1998 that Osama bin Laden used a satellite phone, even though his means of communication had been widely reported beforehand, including by CNN, CBS and Time.
The issue arose at President Bush’s press conference Monday. Mr. Bush criticized an unnamed newspaper for reporting what type of telephone bin Laden was using in 1998, when he was being tracked by the CIA.
“We were listening to him,” Mr. Bush said. “He was using a type of cell phone, or a type of phone, and we put it in the newspaper — somebody put it in the newspaper that this was the type of device he was using to communicate with his team, and he changed.
“I don’t know how I can make the point more clear that any time we give up — and this is before they attacked us, by the way — revealing sources, methods and what we use the information for simply says to the enemy: change.”
The implication was that the newspaper foiled the possibility that the U.S. could find bin Laden and kill or capture him three years before the September 11 attacks.
Mr. Bush did not name the newspaper, but The Washington Post yesterday quoted the White House as saying the president was referring to an Aug. 21, 1998, story in The Washington Times. The New York Times reported that “the president was apparently referring” to the article.
The story was a profile of bin Laden that said, in the 22nd paragraph, “He keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones and has given occasional interviews to international news organizations.”
That is the only story cited by the September 11 commission on the issue of bin Laden’s satellite phone.
In a chapter on efforts to catch the al Qaeda leader, the report states, “Bin Laden had taken to moving his sleeping place frequently and unpredictably and had added new bodyguards. Worst of all, al Qaeda’s senior leadership had stopped using a particular means of communication almost immediately after a leak to The Washington Times. This made it much more difficult for the National Security Agency to intercept his conversations.”
A report footnote refers to the Aug. 21, 1998, story, and cites interviews with three intelligence officials.
But the story in The Washington Times was not based on a leak, and it did not say the U.S. was monitoring the phone. Reports of bin Laden’s using a satellite phone had been in the press for years.
In 1996, Time magazine, in a story on bin Laden in Afghanistan, wrote that he “uses satellite phones to contact fellow Islamic militants in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.”
The day before The Washington Times story appeared in 1998, CNN did a report on how bin Laden operates. The report quoted a bin Laden watcher as saying, “The guy has a fair amount of money. He communicates by satellite phone, even though Afghanistan in some levels is back in the Middle Ages and a country that barely functions. Bin Laden has been able to function fairly well there.”
CBS News reported that night that bin Laden had given an interview to the British Broadcasting Corp. in London, using a satellite phone from Afghanistan.
The same day The Washington Times story appeared, USA Today ran a Page One story on bin Laden that said “a former U.S. official says that bin Laden had a fondness for his cell phone.”
Al Felzenberg, who was spokesman for the now-disbanded commission, when asked why the commission singled out The Washington Times reporting, referred questions to Philip Zelikow, the panel’s executive director who wrote much of the report.
Mr. Zelikow, who is now counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, did not return a phone message. State Department spokesman Price Floyd referred questions to the White House.
Former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, Indiana Democrat and the commission’s vice chairman, further blamed The Washington Times for hamstringing the hunt for bin Laden.
In a speech in October, he said, “Leaks, for instances, can be terribly damaging. In the late ‘90s, it leaked out in The Washington Times that the U.S. was using Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone to track his whereabouts. Bin Laden stopped using that phone. We lost his trail.”
A White House spokesman had no comment.