The Washington Post has a new club to beat the Bush Administration. with today.
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.
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. ...
(Rita) Katz (the firm’s founder) said she decided to offer an advance copy of the bin Laden video to the White House without charge so officials there could prepare for its eventual release.
She spoke first with White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, whom she had previously met, and then with Joel Bagnal, deputy assistant to the president for homeland security. Both expressed interest in obtaining a copy, and Bagnal suggested that she send a copy to Michael Leiter, who holds the No. 2 job at the National Counterterrorism Center.
Around 10 a.m. on Sept. 7, Katz sent both Leiter and Fielding an e-mail with a link to a private SITE Web page containing the video and an English transcript. “Please understand the necessity for secrecy,” Katz wrote in her e-mail. “We ask you not to distribute . . . [as] it could harm our investigations.”
Fielding replied with an e-mail expressing gratitude to Katz. “It is you who deserves the thanks,” he wrote, according to a copy of the message. There was no record of a response from Leiter or the national intelligence director’s office.
Exactly what happened next is unclear. But within minutes of Katz’s e-mail to the White House, government-registered computers began downloading the video from SITE’s server, according to a log of file transfers. The records show dozens of downloads over the next three hours from computers with addresses registered to defense and intelligence agencies.
By midafternoon, several television news networks reported obtaining copies of the transcript. A copy posted around 3 p.m. on Fox News’s Web site referred to SITE and included page markers identical to those used by the group. “This confirms that the U.S. government was responsible for the leak of this document,” Katz wrote in an e-mail to Leiter at 5 p.m.
Al-Qaeda supporters, now alerted to the intrusion into their secret network, put up new obstacles that prevented SITE from gaining the kind of access it had obtained in the past, according to Katz.
So Ms. Katz called up the White House, and passed along to three officials, two of whom she’d never even met, a web-link to the video in question. Having thus shared a piece of information obviously picked up via the Internet to strangers, Mirabile dictu! one or another of those strangers shared it some more.
How difficult it is for anyone possessing the appropriate linguistic skills to penetrate Islamic extremist sites seems uncertain. Obviously those sites exist with the intention of reaching audiences of persons not intimately connected in a single terrorist cell. Their proprietors are likely also to feel that the language barrier alone is adequate to provide protection against ordinary outsider readers. At most, one would expect some very modest sort of password protection, probably using a trivial and obvious Islamist expression like Allah Akhbar.
Access via that kind of password to some semi-public web-site is not exactly the same thing as possession of atomic secrets.
Someone like Ms. Katz, working in the Intelligence business, ought to be familiar with the old maxim: “A secret that is known by three full soon will not a secret be.”