October 9, 2007


Leak Severed a Link to Al-Qaeda's Secrets: Firm Says Administration's Handling of Video Ruined Its Spying Efforts (Joby Warrick, 10/09/07, Washington Post)

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.

"U.S. intelligence-gathering"? Isn't the noteworthy thing here that the intelligence was obtained by the private sector and then passed on?

Qaeda Goes Dark After a U.S. Slip: Enemy Vanishes From Its Web Sites (ELI LAKE, October 9, 2007, NY Sun)

One intelligence officer who requested anonymity said in an interview last week that the intelligence community watched in real time the shutdown of the Obelisk system. America's Obelisk watchers even saw the order to shut down the system delivered from Qaeda's internal security to a team of technical workers in Malaysia. That was the last internal message America's intelligence community saw. "We saw the whole thing shut down because of this leak," the official said. "We lost an important keyhole into the enemy."

By Friday evening, one of the key sets of sites in the Obelisk network, the Ekhlaas forum, was back on line. The Ekhlaas forum is a password-protected message board used by Qaeda for recruitment, propaganda dissemination, and as one of the entrance ways into Obelisk for those operatives whose user names are granted permission. Many of the other Obelisk sites are now offline and presumably moved to new secret locations on the World Wide Web.

The founder of a Web site known as clandestineradio.com, Nick Grace, tracked the shutdown of Qaeda's Obelisk system in real time. "It was both unprecedented and chilling from the perspective of a Web techie. The discipline and coordination to take the entire system down involving multiple Web servers, hundreds of user names and passwords, is an astounding feat, especially that it was done within minutes," Mr. Grace said yesterday.

The head of the SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that monitors Jihadi Web sites and provides information to subscribers, Rita Katz, said she personally provided the video on September 7 to the deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Michael Leiter.

Ms. Katz yesterday said, "We shared a copy of the transcript and the video with the U.S. government, to Michael Leiter, with the request specifically that it was important to keep the subject secret. Then the video was leaked out. An investigation into who downloaded the video from our server indicated that several computers with IP addresses were registered to government agencies."

Yesterday a spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Center, Carl Kropf, denied the accusation that it was responsible for the leak. "That's just absolutely wrong. The allegation and the accusation that we did that is unfounded," he said. The spokesman for the director of national intelligence, Ross Feinstein, yesterday also denied the leak allegation. "The intelligence community and the ODNI senior leadership did not leak this video to the media," he said.

Ms. Katz said, "The government leak damaged our investigation into Al Qaeda's network. Techniques and sources that took years to develop became ineffective. As a result of the leak Al Qaeda changed their methods." Ms. Katz said she also lost potential revenue.

A former counterterrorism official, Roger Cressey, said, "If any of this was leaked for any reasons, especially political, that is just unconscionable." Mr. Cressey added that the work that was lost by burrowing into Qaeda's Internet system was far more valuable than any benefit that was gained by short-circuiting Osama bin Laden's video to the public.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 9, 2007 12:39 PM

Good grief. The MSM is completely worthless. This timeline is wrong. This story is garbage. Obviously no one at the Post or the Sun has a pet jawa...

Posted by: b at October 9, 2007 1:13 PM

Was that an intentional leak to stop "busybodies" from doing govt.'s work? The FBI, CIA, and such are notorious turf fighters. They don't care who is compromised, they want to be the top dog. If there is any intelligence to be gathered, it has to be theirs. If a small mom-and-pop shop can gather valuable intelligence that they missed, how could they justify their existence? Their gobbling up tax-payers' money to "protect" the country? They'd rather have another 911 than to have their budget cut. Afterall, no one was held accountable for the 911 intelligence failures. Instead, their budget was doubled or tripled. Their incompetence was rewarded big time.

Posted by: ic at October 9, 2007 1:57 PM

Nope! No Decline here. Everything is fine, Schools are fine, Republicans are fine, DHS is fine.

Go do some shopping. Everything is fine. Nothing to see. All is fine. Everybody move on.

Posted by: Bruno at October 9, 2007 2:02 PM

If those sites are actually known, and haven't been hacked by the NSA a dozen different ways their incompetance is beyond my comprehension.

Posted by: Mike Earl at October 9, 2007 4:32 PM


You make a threshold error, typical of the declinist ,when you insists, against all, historical evidence, that intelligence was once good.

Posted by: oj at October 9, 2007 5:27 PM

Heads should roll.

Unfortunately, a major attribute of the Bush administration is to not hold people responsible. He's allowed a whole series of incompetent people to gain office, be promoted, or given awards.

OJ is right that this is typical of the intelligence services. But a failure to hold people accountable is still an identifying mark of Dubya.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at October 9, 2007 5:51 PM

No intelligence officer has ever lost his job for being consistently wrong, though they all have been. Bureaucrats can't be held accountable, that's why the civil service reforms are among his most important legacies.

Posted by: oj at October 9, 2007 7:39 PM

Hold on folks, we have no idea whether this is true or not. For all we know this is a bit of black propaganda to make Al Qaeda think their communications are now secure. Heck, it could be that their earlier system was secure, and this "leak" was a ploy to get them to abandon it for their second-choice system.

Possibly this is a screw-up as it seems, but remember this is all top-level wilderness-of-mirrors stuff, and the truth probably won't come out for decades.

Posted by: PapayaSF at October 9, 2007 10:55 PM


Relative to you, Rich Karlgaard is a "declinist."

I'm less of of declinist than idealist with one foot on the ground.

Your point (loosely stated) that intelligence wrapped up in bureaucracy isn't all we crack it up to be, is accurate, and one I agree with.

It is the purposefully destructive tendencies of the bureaucrats that bother me.

If there is any "threshold error" (that has yet to be determined), it is whether the reservior of human potential is so large as to be beyond the reach of its destroyers (seemingly your view), or whether that reservior is finite enough to worry over the amount of waste.

As with many of our disagreements, I wake up everyday praying that you are right, and I am wrong. I just wouldn't bet the farm on it.

Interestingly, in the case at hand, your view that private intelligence outperformed public would seemingly lead to agreement with Ron Paul.

Perhaps we should dispense with the marines and army re: the WOT, and issue letters of marque and reprisal.

For my part, I believe that if we are in decline (and I'm less of a declinist than you may think), the source of that decline is an increasingly infantilized public relying on an increasingly stupefied bureaucracy (of any stripe).

Let's just sunset the NEA, FBI, DHS and CIA. (and no, folks, that isn't a mistake. The NEA IS the DOE.

Posted by: Bruno at October 9, 2007 11:02 PM

Human potential? We're already overachieving.

Posted by: oj at October 10, 2007 6:17 AM