The White House yesterday said it was “absolutely wrong” for the September 11 commission to falsely accuse The Washington Times of breaking a story that Osama bin Laden used a satellite phone.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan also acknowledged that he erred by telling The Washington Post Monday that President Bush was referring to The Times when he complained about the disclosure at a press conference earlier in the day. Both The Times and The Post have since pointed out that bin Laden’s use of satellite phones had been reported by Time magazine, CBS, CNN and other media outlets before The Times repeated it on Aug. 21, 1998.
Mr. McClellan said he “should have been clearer” by explaining “the president was referring to the 9/11 commission report.”
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.”
Commission Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, had gone further.
“Leaks, for instances, can be terribly damaging,” he said in an October speech. “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.”
But The Times merely reported that bin Laden used satellite phones, not that they were being tracked. Moreover, the information published by The Times already had been reported two years earlier by Time magazine, which said bin Laden “keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones and gives occasional interviews to international news organizations including TIME and CNN.”
Yesterday, Mr. McClellan said Mr. Hamilton acknowledges that he and the commission “would not have singled out The Times if they had known about earlier reports where the information about bin Laden using a satellite phone was disclosed.”
The presidential spokesman added, “It is absolutely wrong to single out The Washington Times, or suggest TWT disclosed this information.”
It appears the commission was repeating an accusation first leveled by two Democrats who worked for former President Bill Clinton and wrote a partisan book in 2002 that denounced The Times as “an unabashed right-wing newspaper.” The authors savaged The Times for publishing its 1998 article.
“Bin Laden stopped using the satellite phone instantly,” wrote authors Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. “The United States lost its best chance to find him.”
Asked by The Post why he blamed The Times when the information had been reported earlier by numerous other media outlets, Mr. Benjamin shrugged, “You got me.”