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.
The Bush administration leaks classified intelligence to the media—again—and destroys a years-long investigation of al Qaeda. The incompetence is unbelievable.
UPDATE: The NY Sun has more information, although you’ll note that the Sun tries to blame ABC for the leak. Later in the article, the Sun reports that the leak allegedly came from the administration:
WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda’s Internet communications system has suddenly gone dark to American intelligence after the leak of Osama bin Laden’s September 11 speech inadvertently disclosed the fact that we had penetrated the enemy’s system.
The intelligence blunder started with what appeared at the time as an American intelligence victory, namely that the federal government had intercepted, a full four days before it was to be aired, a video of Osama bin Laden’s first appearance in three years in a video address marking the sixth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001. On the morning of September 7, the Web site of ABC News posted excerpts from the speech.
But the disclosure from ABC and later other news organizations tipped off Qaeda’s internal security division that the organization’s Internet communications system, known among American intelligence analysts as Obelisk, was compromised.
Al Qaeda’s internet communications system went dark within minutes, which is quite an amazing feat of coordination and communication.
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.”
Of course, the Bush administration denies it was the source of the leak. They’d never do that….
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.
UPDATE II: The New Yorker wrote a lengthy article titled “Private Jihad,” about Rita Katz, SITE and the privatization of intelligence gathering here.