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 jihadishere.blogspot.com 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.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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