Dubious sources feed national-security reporter Eli Lake a fraudulent story for political purposes — once again
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
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.
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Today the Daily Beast reported that an intercepted conference call between “more than 20 al Qaeda operatives” led nearly two dozen U.S. embassies scattered across Southwest Asia and North Africa to shut down over the weekend, a precautionary measure that American officials later extended through August 10. Based on testimony from three unnamed U.S. officials, reporters Eli Lake and Josh Rogin say al Qaeda lieutenants in Nigeria, Uzbekistan, Egypt and Islamic Maghreb discussed vague plans of attack with al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and the terrorist group’s Yemeni leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi. One of the unnamed officers compared the call to a meeting of the “Legion of Doom.”
Within hours of publication, however, a bevy of national security journalists began casting doubts on the leaked information contained within the Beast’s report. Two theories were quickly born. Adam Goldman of the Associated Press wondered if the leak was manufactured to protect human intelligence (that is, a leaker within al Qaeda), while Ken Delanian of the Los Angeles Times suggested that it was intended to glorify the NSA’s signals intelligence capabilities at a politically vulnerable moment. Barton Gellman of the Washington Post, meanwhile, failed to see how the entire story — the leak, the method of intercept, and the contents of the call — added up…