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.

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

More from Ken Silverstein:

Commentary November 17, 2015, 6:41 pm

Shaky Foundations

The Clintons’ so-called charitable enterprise has served as a vehicle to launder money and to enrich family friends.

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Printed Word in Peril·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Article
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Article
Nothing but Gifts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Article
Checkpoint Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Acres of crossword puzzles Americans fill in each day:

54

In Burma, a newly discovered noseless monkey was assumed to be critically endangered because—despite its efforts to keep its head tucked between its legs on rainy days—it sneezes whenever rain falls into its nasal cavity and thereby alerts hunters to its presence.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racketon the clock

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today