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Leak Severed a Link to Al-Qaeda’s Secrets

Firm Says Admin­is­tra­tion’s Han­dling of Video Ruined Its Spy­ing Efforts

by Joby War­rick

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.

“Tech­niques that took years to devel­op are now inef­fec­tive and worth­less,” said Rita Katz, the firm’s 44-year-old founder, who has gar­nered wide atten­tion by pub­li­ciz­ing state­ments and videos from extrem­ist chat rooms and Web sites, while attract­ing con­tro­ver­sy over the secre­cy of SITE’s method­ol­o­gy. Her firm pro­vides intel­li­gence about ter­ror­ist groups to a wide range of pay­ing clients, includ­ing pri­vate firms and mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence agen­cies from the Unit­ed States and sev­er­al oth­er coun­tries.

The pre­cise source of the leak remains unknown. Gov­ern­ment offi­cials declined to be inter­viewed about the cir­cum­stances on the record, but they did not chal­lenge Katz’s ver­sion of events. They also said the inci­dent had no effect on U.S. intel­li­gence-gath­er­ing efforts and did not dimin­ish the government’s abil­i­ty to antic­i­pate attacks.

While acknowl­edg­ing that SITE had achieved suc­cess, the offi­cials said U.S. agen­cies have their own sophis­ti­cat­ed means of watch­ing al-Qae­da on the Web. “We have indi­vid­u­als in the right places deal­ing with all these issues, across all 16 intel­li­gence agen­cies,” said Ross Fein­stein, spokesman for the Office of the Direc­tor of Nation­al Intel­li­gence.

But pri­vate­ly, some intel­li­gence offi­cials called the inci­dent regret­table, and one offi­cial said SITE had been “tremen­dous­ly help­ful” in fer­ret­ing out al-Qae­da secrets over time.

The al-Qae­da video aired on Sept. 7 attract­ed inter­na­tion­al atten­tion as the first new video mes­sage from the group’s leader in three years. In it, a dark-beard­ed bin Laden urges Amer­i­cans to con­vert to Islam and pre­dicts fail­ure for the Bush admin­is­tra­tion in Iraq and Afghanistan. The video was aired on hun­dreds of West­ern news Web sites near­ly a full day before its release by a dis­tri­b­u­tion com­pa­ny linked to al-Qae­da.

Com­put­er logs and records reviewed by The Wash­ing­ton Post sup­port SITE’s claim that it snatched the video from al-Qae­da days before­hand. Katz request­ed that the pre­cise date and details of the acqui­si­tion not be made pub­lic, say­ing such dis­clo­sures could reveal sen­si­tive details about the company’s meth­ods.

SITE—an acronym for the Search for Inter­na­tion­al Ter­ror­ist Entities—was estab­lished in 2002 with the stat­ed goal of track­ing and expos­ing ter­ror­ist groups, accord­ing to the company’s Web site. Katz, an Iraqi-born Israeli cit­i­zen whose father was exe­cut­ed by Sad­dam Hus­sein in the 1960s, has made the inves­ti­ga­tion of ter­ror­ist groups a pas­sion­ate quest.

“We were able to estab­lish sources that pro­vid­ed us with unique and impor­tant infor­ma­tion into al-Qaeda’s hid­den world,” Katz said. Her company’s income is drawn from sub­scriber fees and con­tracts.

Katz 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.

Admin­is­tra­tion and intel­li­gence offi­cials would not com­ment on whether they had obtained the video sep­a­rate­ly. Katz said Field­ing and Bag­nal made it clear to her that the White House did not pos­sess a copy at the time she offered hers.

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.

A small num­ber of pri­vate intel­li­gence com­pa­nies com­pete with SITE in scour­ing ter­ror­ists’ net­works for infor­ma­tion and mes­sages, and some have ques­tioned the company’s motives and meth­ods, includ­ing the claim that its access to al-Qaeda’s net­work was unique. One com­peti­tor, Ben Ven­zke, founder of Intel­Cen­ter, said he ques­tions SITE’s decision—as described by Katz—to offer the video to White House pol­i­cy­mak­ers rather than qui­et­ly share it with intel­li­gence ana­lysts.

“It is not just about get­ting the video first,” Ven­zke said. “It is about hav­ing the prop­er meth­ods and pro­ce­dures in place to make sure that the appro­pri­ate intel­li­gence gets to where it needs to go in the intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty and else­where in order to sup­port ongo­ing coun­tert­er­ror­ism oper­a­tions.”


One comment for “Leak Severed a Link to Al-Qaeda’s Secrets”

  1. Amaz­ing!!! Excel­lent work Dave

    Posted by Nick Joseph | March 17, 2009, 2:13 pm

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