Controversy — August 15, 2013, 3:58 pm

Anatomy of an Al Qaeda “Conference Call”

Dubious sources feed national-security reporter Eli Lake a fraudulent story for political purposes — once again

Cartoon by C. Clyde Squires (September 1907)

Cartoon by C. Clyde Squires (September 1907)

Two years ago, following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, a number of journalists wrote dramatic accounts of the Al Qaeda leader’s last moments. One such story, co-authored by Eli Lake in the Washington Times, cited Obama administration officials and an unnamed military source, described how bin Laden had “reached for a weapon to try to defend himself” during the intense firefight at his compound, and then “was shot by Navy SEALs after trying to use a woman reputed to be his wife as a human shield.”

It was exciting stuff, but it turned out to have been fictitious propaganda concocted by U.S. authorities to destroy bin Laden’s image in the eyes of his followers. Based on what we know now, the SEALs met virtually no resistance at the compound, there was no firefight, bin Laden didn’t use a woman as a human shield, and he was unarmed.

The White House blamed the misleading early reports on the “fog of war,” but as Will Saletan pointed out in Slate, “A fog of war creates confusion, not a consistent story like the one about the human shield. The reason U.S. officials bought and sold this story is that it fit their larger indictment of Bin Laden. It reinforced the shameful picture of him hiding in a mansion while sending others to fight and die. It made him look like a coward.”

Many reporters uncritically rushed the government’s account into print. For Lake, though, it fit a career pattern of credulously planting dubious stories from sources with strong political agendas.[*]

[*] I should disclose that Lake and I aren’t on friendly terms. We were until a few years ago, when I received a tip that led to a 2011 story showing that Lake, who regularly praised the government of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, was a close friend of one of the country’s Washington lobbyists, and that the lobbyist sometimes picked up his bar and restaurant tabs. After the story was published, Lake and his friends, some of whom had flown to Georgia on junkets paid for by the same lobbyist, took to Twitter to denounce me.

Which brings us to the news story that Lake and Josh Rogin broke for the Daily Beast last week, in which they reported that the “crucial intercept that prompted the U.S. government to close embassies in 22 countries was a conference call between al Qaeda’s senior leaders and representatives of several of the group’s affiliates throughout the region.” The story said that among the “more than 20 operatives” on the call was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who the piece claimed was managing a global organization with affiliates in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Other Al Qaeda participants involved in the call reportedly represented affiliates operating in Iraq, the Islamic Maghreb, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Sinai Peninsula, and Uzbekistan.

The sources for the story were three U.S. officials “familiar with the intelligence.” “This was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom,” one told Lake and Rogin. “All you need to do is look at that list of places we shut down to get a sense of who was on the phone call.”

The piece also cited Republican senator John McCain, who drew a predictably grim conclusion from the news. “This may punch a sizable hole in the theory that Al Qaeda is on the run,” he said. “There was a gross underestimation by this administration of Al Qaeda’s overall ability to replenish itself.” The story was picked up widely, especially on the right. On his show, Rush Limbaugh charged that the Obama “regime” had leaked the story for political gain. “They leak it,” he explained, “so as to make Obama look big and competent and tough and make this administration look like nobody’s gonna get anything past them.”

Then a number of respected national-security journalists began to question the motives of the leakers, and to cast doubt on the story generally. Ken Dilanian of the Los Angeles Times suggested that the piece was intended to glorify the NSA’s signals-intelligence capabilities. Barton Gellman of the Washington Post said there was something “very wrong” with the whole thing. New York magazine got in on the act by parodying the notion of an Al Qaeda conference call.

Despite this tide of doubt and ridicule, the Daily Beast didn’t correct the story, though Lake and Rogin made statements that seemed designed to alter its meaning. “We used ‘conference call’ because it was generic enough,” Lake tweeted. “But it was not a telephone based communications.” In another tweet he informed Ben Wedeman of CNN, “This may be a generational issue, but you can conduct conference calls without a telephone.” (Actually, you can’t, at least according to the dictionary. Moreover, the “Legion of Doom” source had specifically called it a “phone call.”)

In a follow-up story published the day after the original article, Lake wrote that at the request of its sources, the Daily Beast was “withholding details about the technology al Qaeda used to conduct the conference call.” The suggestion was that the story had omitted information to keep terrorists from knowing too much about U.S. intelligence operations. But as Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor noted, “If a conference call of some sort took place, then the participants know full well how they did it. And the moment they see a news report that says the United States was listening in to the call, they’re going to shut that means of communication down.” Others wondered why, given the worldwide uproar about National Security Agency spying, Al Qaeda would risk gathering all of its top operatives for any form of simultaneous multiparty communication.

Lake’s past is instructive here. He was an open and ardent promoter of the Iraq War and the various myths trotted out to justify it, contributing to the media drumbeat that helped the Bush Administration sell the war to the public and to Congress. He reported on Saddam Hussein’s close ties to Al Qaeda and his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and he championed discredited con man Ahmed Chalabi, head of the CIA-backed Iraqi National Congress (INC), who promised that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops “as liberators” and said there would be little chance of sectarian bloodshed after the invasion. Bogus INC material found its way into at least two of Lake’s pieces, including a December 2001 National Review story in which he argued that, with the Taliban defeated in Afghanistan, the United States should consider military action against Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen. “There are very good arguments why all three should be the next target,” he wrote. “Iraq after all has been developing nuclear and biological weapons in underground wells and hospitals, according to Adnan Ihsan Saeed al-Haideri, a defector interviewed by the New York Times. One of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, met with Iraqi intelligence officers in Prague in April.”

Even Dick Cheney later acknowledged that the latter story, which was trotted around endlessly by war advocates, had never been confirmed. And the New York Times report to which Lake was alluding, published the day before his piece came out, was written by Judith Miller, a serial fabricator whose reckless Iraq War reporting effectively ended her career as a respectable journalist.

As Jonathan Landay and Trish Wells of Knight Ridder reported a few years later in a look back at that period, the INC by its own admission gave “exaggerated and fabricated” pre-war intelligence to journalists to promote the invasion of Iraq. “Feeding the information to the news media, as well as to selected administration officials and members of Congress,” Landay and Wells wrote, “helped foster an impression that there were multiple sources of intelligence on Iraq’s illicit weapons programs and links to bin Laden. In fact, many of the allegations came from the same half-dozen defectors.”

By 2004, even Chalabi and the Bush Administration had conceded that Saddam didn’t have WMD stockpiles. “We are heroes in error,” Chalabi told the Daily Telegraph. “As far as we’re concerned we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone.”

Yet for years, Lake continued to doggedly pursue his belief that Iraq had WMDs, writing pieces (again using questionable sources) claiming that Saddam had in fact possessed large quantities of these weapons, but that Russia had snuck them across the border into Syria on his behalf shortly before the U.S. invasion. In a 2006 piece for the New York Sun, he reported that David Gaubatz, a former special investigator for the Pentagon, said he’d found four sealed underground bunkers in Iraq “that he is sure contain stocks of chemical and biological weapons.” But, Lake reported, when Gaubatz asked American weapons inspectors to look into them, he was “rebuffed.”

Military authorities may have rebuffed Gaubatz because he showed signs of being unhinged. Two years after Lake’s story appeared, Gaubatz wrote a now-scrubbed post about Obama at that read, “We are now on the verge of allowing a self admitted ‘crack-head’ to have his finger on every nuclear weapon in America.” In 2009, he published a book entitled Muslim Mafia: Inside the Secret Underworld That’s Conspiring to Islamize America.

In recent years, Lake has, using similarly tainted sources, continued his hunt for Saddam’s WMDs and carried water for those seeking a hard-line American approach toward Iran. And now we have the Al Qaeda conference call.

Thus far no major media outlet has confirmed Lake and Rogin’s story. U.S. officials told Bloomberg News that reports of a conference call were incorrect, while CNN reported that it had “learned that the al Qaeda leaders communicated via some kind of encrypted messaging system, with multiple points of entry to allow for various parties to join in,” adding, “officials continue to insist . . . that there was no traditional conference call.”

The thrust of Lake and Rogin’s initial report — that Al Qaeda leaders got together to discuss strategy by phone — was false. The pair then effectively retracted the key element of their story by relabeling the call a “non-telephone communication” while failing to acknowledge the error or that at least one of their sources — the Legion of Doom quipster  — was either ignorant of the facts or a liar. They even went on to claim that they’d been vindicated by the CNN report, which explicitly refuted their original account. 

Lara Jakes and Adam Goldman at the Associated Press appear to have reported the embassy-closure story more accurately yesterday, also challenging the veracity of the Daily Beast article in the process. The AP story said that the “vague plot” that led the U.S. government to shut down American diplomatic posts may have resulted from comments made by jihadists on encrypted Internet message boards and in chat rooms — which is nothing new — and that it was “highly unlikely” al-Zawahiri was personally part of the chatter or that he would “ever go online or pick up the phone to discuss terror plots.”

But just as in the case of the raid that killed bin Laden, the bogus story was better than the truth. A less sensational story would not have provided fodder for John McCain’s preposterous remarks on the renewed strength of Al Qaeda (or for the broader political exploitation of the story by the right), nor would it have provided political cover for the NSA, as Ken Dilanian put it.

No matter. The Daily Beast’s sources must be pleased with their handiwork, and with the reporters who bought it.

Single Page
is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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  • Henry Hughes

    This detailed look at Lake and his “sources” is much appreciated. However, it includes another rehash of the elaborate justifications for the Iraq War without a mention of what must have been the actual strategic reasons for it.

    We need to know those reasons. What were they? What actually justified (at least in the eyes of those responsible for prosecuting it) the enormously costly (to U.S. coffers and standing in the world) invasion and occupation of Iraq?

    Whose interests were served?

    • Egyptsteve

      Is that actually a serious question? We care about two things in the Middle East: oil and Israel. So the interests served were defined by those who want Israel to remain invulnerable to any strategic challenge by any major Arab state; and those who want the U.S. to control (directly, or through friendly powers) access to energy.

      • Henry Hughes

        The question was quite serious. Your obvious, facile answer contributes exactly nothing to our understanding of U.S. strategic thinking.

        • Egyptsteve

          alright then, what do we care about in the Middle East other than oil and Israel? Whatever that is, that is what dictates our strategy.

  • Tish_Wells1

    And if you’d like to read the story by Jonathan Landay and Tish Wells, here’s the link.

    • Harper’s Magazine

      Thanks Tish — we’d had the link to a republished version on Common Dreams. I’ve replaced it with yours.

  • H.P. Loathecraft

    How about the story about finding a porn collection in the OBL compound? Was that propaganda as well?

  • H.P. Loathecraft

    Bin Laden turfed his satellite phone back in 2002, yet we’re supposed to believe that his successor chats up his fellow terrorists on the phone about pending plots. lol

  • William_Bradley

    If only they had described it as a SPECTRE conference call, I would have bought the story myself …

    Can’t you just see ole Ayman stroking his big white kitty cat while intoning his nefarious instructions??


  • With George Sanders

    So now that this idea of an “Al-Qaeda conference call”, as if it were a Walmart earnings meeting conducted for it’s shareholders, has been sort of discredited, I expect now that we will soon be deluged by a tidal wave of public apologies, corrections, and changes in editorial policies by the legislators, journalists, and cable news analysts who steer our public discourse on national security issues, which will in turn be followed by a painstaking yet thoughtful attempt to reform the way in which it has been egregiously misconducted.

  • antoinepgrew

    Why is it that Harper’s is the only news magazine willing and ABLE to tell the truth?

    One thing is certain: that’s why they are still a print org as well. I buy their print subscription just to keep them in the game.

    • JohnThackr

      Actually, it looks like Harper’s is agreeing with Rush Limbaugh here. The story is an inaccurate one, designed by the leakers to glorify the Administration and the government, including the NSA.

      • antoinepgrew

        Re-read it. You’ve got it wrong.

        • JohnThackr

          I re-read it. Silverstein says that Obama Administration officials were the sources, and the article “provided political cover for the NSA” and its current activities. The NSA and its current activities are defended by the Obama Administration, which is acting in continuity with the Bush Administration. If the story was designed to provide political cover for the NSA, then it was providing political cover for the Obama Administration’s support of the NSA.

          Silverstein refuses to follow this to the obvious conclusion, but that’s purely being blinded by partisan considerations. The NSA programs were started under George W. Bush, and are continued and defended under Barack Obama. Silverstein, and his counterparts on the Right like Rush Limbaugh, might deny this, but there is no distinction between Bush and Obama on this NSA issue. Both Administrations used the NSA, and Eli Lake has been equally willing to defend the intelligence community and its status quo by publishing Administration sourced stories from both Administrations.

          The story is pro-NSA. From Fall 2000 to Fall 2008, that would have meant pro-George W. Bush Administration. Currently, it means pro-Obama Administration. The players change; the policy doesn’t.

          • Sandy M

            Are you suggesting that the fact that Obama is well into his second term of office and the Obama Administration’s support of the NSA are points which Silverstein needs to explicitly lay out for his readers? And declining to do so indicates that Silverstein must be attempting to obscure those points?

          • Sandy M

            My questions are directed to JohnThackr.

  • JohnThackr

    It seems to me that Harper’s here is agreeing with the basic take of Rush Limbaugh– the story should not be taken for face value, and was leaked for political purposes. After all, if it was designed “provide political cover for the NSA,” then it must also be providing political cover for the Obama Administration that is defending the NSA. George W. Bush is no longer President, and President Obama has made many statements defending the NSA and its programs. The presumably self-serving Administration officials who leaked the information are identified as Obama Administration officials.

    And yet, the tone of the article, especially the last paragraph, appears to be trying to have its cake and eat it too. The political exploitation that the Administration leakers were going for was not one to help the Administration’s foes, but to help the Administration and justify the Obama Administration’s support for the NSA and its programs.

  • antoinepgrew

    EXPOSED: Neocon Eli Lake of Daily Beast Invents His Stories by MJ Rosenberg. [You will need to go to the original to get the links.]

    This is delicious.

    Ken Silverstein over at Harper’s exposes reporter Eli Lake as a guy who simply makes things up (in the interests of serving the neocon agenda.

    This is not a surprise really. Imagine Jennifer Rubin as a reporter and not a columnist and you have Lake. The only difference is that Rubin doesn’t pretend to be a journalist.

    Soon Lake won’t be able to either.

    He is also on the take, so, what we have, is Eli Lake, a guy who makes shit up, passes it off as journalism, and gets paid by foreign lobbies to do so. What a creep.

  • gregorylent

    why would anyone think it was osama bin laden that was assassinated?

  • Wraith7216

    Thanks to MJay for pointing his readers toward this article, everyone should read it and think long and hard before believing a word from a neocon warmonger…

  • NepotismIsDomesticTerrorism

    He Lie Lake is a lying sack of bleep and always has been.

    He Lie Lake writes for his homeland, Judea and Samaria, for his leaders, Avigdor Lieberman, Danny Danon, and Naftali Bennett, for his U.S. financiers, AIPAC, WINEP, and Sick Willie Kristol, and for his pals and brethren in Price Tag and the Kahane movement.

  • pie

    i like pie

  • Har Mikel Denaim

    The clearly is human sickness, my wrote about
    potention that you can read, and that teaching on islam

    god did torturing because potention He made. to
    human that the capability is small we sometime need to alert, it’s need to
    alert too to the creator of all potention on life and human, that clearly his
    ability is more great and this life have much of big sickness, it’s enough
    reasons to alert and doubt the goodest concept.



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