White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Wednesday falsely blamed journalists for thwarting US spying on Osama bin Laden just years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“The media routinely reports on classified information and government secrets that put lives in danger and risks valuable national security tools,” Sanders said Wednesday as she answered a question about threats and insults reporters have faced from Trump supporters. “One of the worst cases was the reporting on the US ability to listen to Osama Bin Laden’s satellite phone in the late 90s. Because of that reporting, he stopped using that phone and the country lost valuable intelligence.”
That assertion is false and it has previously been debunked years ago.
Sanders did not respond to CNN requests asking which article she was specifically referring to, but Sanders appeared to be drawing on a claim by former President George W. Bush and the 9/11 Commission.
Bush and the commission in 2005 blamed an August 1998 article in The Washington Times for revealing that the US government had the ability to monitor bin Laden’s satellite communications.
The story in question did not claim that the US government was monitoring the phone, instead merely reporting that bin Laden used a satellite phone – something that was widely known at the time. Further, a Washington Post article from the time of Bush’s accusation points out that the Taliban, and bin Laden himself, not the US government, were the sources of information about bin Laden’s phone usage.
Several media reports, including one from CNN, around the time of the August 1998 Washington Times story also noted that bin Laden used a satellite phone, including to conduct media interviews. Only a USA Today story from around that time quoted a former US official noting that bin Laden “had a fondness for his cell phone.”
Despite the lack of reporting about the US government monitoring that phone, some national security officials at the time later claimed bin Laden’s stopped using that satellite phone because of the Washington Times report – and the 9/11 commission later parroted that assertion.
On September 7, 1998 a US newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, reported on US government monitoring of bin Laden’s satellite phone – but in that same article they noted that bin Laden could be scaling back use of the devices.
Sanders made the false claim on Wednesday as she attempted to rebut questions about whether it is appropriate for Trump supporters to jeer at, insult and threaten reporters who are covering Trump rallies after reporters at a Tuesday night rally once again faced that kind of behavior.
Sanders said that the President “does not support violence against anyone,” but said “when it comes to the media, the President does think that the media holds a responsibility.”
“We fully support a free press, but there also comes a high level of responsibility with that,” Sanders said.
Trump supporters jeering at journalists covering Trump rallies are rarely focused on national security reporting in the press, instead telling reporters they believe they are unfairly covering Trump and his administration and often parroting slurs used by Trump himself. Trump has, since the start of his candidacy, attacked, disparaged and demeaned journalists. Since assuming the presidency he has also, on occasion, referred to journalists as the “enemy of the people.”