Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”
As part of a systematic effort by the Trump administration to paint the press as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people,” Sarah Sanders trotted out a long-debunked canard about Osama bin Laden at Wednesday’s White House press briefing.
Sanders claimed that “the media routinely reports on classified information and government secrets that put lives in danger and risk valuable national security tools. 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.”
Sanders was referring to an August 21, 1998, story in The Washington Times that purportedly tipped off bin Laden that the US government was listening to his satellite phone.
In blaming The Washington Times, Sanders was following in the footsteps of President George W. Bush and the 9/11 Commission. All of them were, and are, wrong.
In fact, bin Laden was careful about using his satellite phone, not because he was glued to his computer reading an obscure American newspaper in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where there was no internet at the time, but because he wasn’t an idiot.
In early 1997, I visited Khalid al-Fawwaz, an associate of bin Laden’s in London, to arrange an interview with al Qaeda’s leader for CNN.
A year and half before The Washington Times article appeared, Fawwaz volunteered to me that bin Laden communicated by radio and generally avoided using satellite phones “because he was well aware that intelligence agencies could easily monitor satellite phone calls.” Conscious of the security problems of satellite phones, bin Laden would often give his phone to subordinates to make calls.
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Al Qaeda’s leaders had also closely followed the April 1996 assassination of Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen leader who was killed by a Russian missile that homed in on the signal of his satellite phone. Bin Laden didn’t need The Washington Times to tell him about the risks associated with talking on a satellite phone.
The fact that bin Laden went off the grid around the time of The Washington Times story is more than likely because the day before it appeared, bin Laden was on the receiving end of a barrage of US cruise missile strikes because al Qaeda had recently bombed two US embassies in Africa, killing more than 200 people.
Bin Laden eluded those strikes, but there’s nothing quite like surviving a barrage of US cruise missiles to get you off your electronic devices!