Press Plays Hot Potato With Seven Year-Old Scoop

No one seems to want to claim responsibility for the scoop that bin Laden was using a cell phone to call his minions.

The death of a cell phone rarely happens under mysterious conditions. There’s no autopsy required, for instance, when you drop your cell phone in the bathroom and it lands in the toilet. Nor is there much ambiguity when a crush of roaming charges eventually drives you into the arms of another service provider. Good riddance.

Yet this past week the particular circumstances under which Osama bin Laden gave his cell phone the heave-ho in 1998 has touched off a minor controversy in Washington D.C. And with each passing day it seems more and more likely that the story of bin Laden’s cell phone is destined to take its place in history alongside the story of Hitler’s supposedly missing testicle — a slippery detail in the life of a tyrant that manages to escape a singular, satisfying explanation.

The debate over the shuttering of bin Laden’s cell phone got started on Monday during a press conference in which President Bush asserted that in 1998 bin Laden shut off his phone after seeing a reference to it in an American newspaper — thus throwing off U.S. surveillance of the terrorist’s activities.

“And again, I want to repeat what I said about Osama bin Laden, the man who ordered the attack that killed 3,000 Americans,” said the President. “We were listening to him. He was using a type of cell phone, or a type of phone, and we put it in the newspaper — somebody put it in the newspaper that this was the type of device he was using to communicate with his team, and he changed.”

At the time, the president didn’t say which newspaper was responsible for publishing the supposed leak. But the following day, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post reported that the White House was referring to a profile of bin Laden that had appeared in 1998 in the Washington Times.

On Wednesday, the Times rushed to its own defense, publishing a story shooting down the president’s assertion. “The [president’s] implication was that the newspaper foiled the possibility that the U.S. could find bin Laden and kill or capture him three years before the September 11 attacks,” noted the Times.

“But the story in The Washington Times was not based on a leak, and it did not say the U.S. was monitoring the phone,” added the paper. “Reports of bin Laden’s using a satellite phone had been in the press for years.”

Newspapers rarely empahise the lack of originality in their own stories. But, in this case, the Times’ admission of unoriginality added up to a solid defense. Sure enough, the Times had simply repeated (without attribution) a detail of bin Laden’s life that had already been reported as early as 1996 by various other media organizatons, including CNN, CBS, and Time. On the day that the cell phone reference appeared in the Times the same detail appeared in a front-page story in USA Today.

So how did the President know it was the Times’ mention of Bin Laden’s cell phone that inspired the terrorist to cancel his service? As it turns out, the president’s assertion was based on a report by the 911 Commission, which, in turn, was apparently based on a book called “The Age of Sacred Terror” by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. Yesterday, writing in Slate, Jack Shafer caught up with Benjamin about the issue of bin Laden’s phone.

“Daniel Benjamin, who was a National Security Council staffer from 1994 to 1998, says he’s willing to believe that the information wasn’t leaked,” reported Shafer, “but adds, ‘In our office and our sphere of operations this [the Washington Times piece] was understood to be the story responsible for him turning off his phone.’”

Shafer, however, had his own doubts about the logic of the connection. “I’m prepared to believe that Bin Laden — or at least his open-source intelligence center — read the newspaper controlled by convicted felon Rev. Sun Myung Moon as part of their daily news diet, and then turned off their satellite phones and computers after reading the controversial story,” wrote Shafer. “The paper’s reputation for breaking intelligence stories might, indeed, make it a must-read in al-Qaida circles. But before I’m willing to point fingers, I’d like to see a stronger chain of causation.”

“Any way you look at it, the satphone facts were in the public domain the week the Washington Times published its story,” concluded Shafer. “For Bush — or anybody else — to blame the story on a leak just doesn’t hold water.”

The leakiness of the president’s “leak” explanation was reiterated today by Glenn Kessler, again writing in the Washington Post.

“The story of the vicious leak that destroyed a valuable intelligence operation was first reported by a best-selling book, validated by the Sept. 11 commission and then repeated by the president,” wrote Kessler. “But it appears to be an urban myth.”

“The al Qaeda leader’s communication to aides via satellite phone had already been reported in 1996 — and the source of the information was another government, the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan at the time,” added Kessler. “The second time a news organization reported on the satellite phone, the source was bin Laden himself.”

So in all likelihood the Times’ story wasn’t based on a leak. But did bin Laden really toss out his phone based on the story in the Times?

Or was it the story on CNN? Or on CBS? Or did he accidentally drop his phone off some steep mountain pass? Or was he simply sick of paying for all those overtime minutes and Afghany surcharges?

Bin Laden, himself, could clear up the mystery. But he’s probably pretty tough to reach for comment these days, what with his lack of a cell phone.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.