A small private intelligence company that monitors Islamic terrorist groups obtained a new Osama bin Laden video ahead of its official release...
WASHINGTON — 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. Sept. 7, it notified the Bush administration of its secret acquisition.
It gave two senior officials access on the condition they not reveal they had it until the al-Qaida release.
Within 20 minutes, a range of intelligence agencies had begun downloading it from the company’s Web site.
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By midafternoon, 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-Qaida to a security breach and destroyed a years-long surveillance operation the company has used to intercept and pass along secret messages, videos and advance warnings of suicide bombings from the terrorists’ 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 on the record but did not challenge Katz’s version of events.
While acknowledging SITE had achieved success, the officials said U.S. agencies have their own sophisticated means of watching al-Qaida 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 said SITE had been “tremendously helpful” in ferreting out al-Qaida secrets.
The al-Qaida video was aired on hundreds of Western news Web sites nearly a full day before its release by a distribution company linked to al-Qaida.
SITE — an acronym for the Search for International Terrorist Entities — was established in 2002 with the 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.
Her company’s income is drawn from subscriber fees and contracts.
White House approached
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 release.
She spoke first with White House counsel Fred Fielding, whom she had previously met, then with Joel Bagnal, deputy assistant to the president for homeland security.
Both expressed interest, and Bagnal suggested 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 the White House did not possess a copy when she offered hers.
Around 10 a.m. Sept. 7, Katz e-mailed both Leiter and Fielding 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’ 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-Qaida 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 in the past, according to Katz.