Now that Operation Enduring Freedom has exploded into a full-blown shooting war, journalists and their official sources urgently must clam up about sensitive military and intelligence matters. Media coverage of the September 11 massacre investigation and subsequent allied response has been a rich feast for news junkies. Unfortunately, terrorists and their state sponsors may be enjoying this banquet, too.
The Associated Press’s Jocelyn Noveck last Friday quoted Alexis Debat, an author, teacher, and former French Defense Ministry employee. Citing his own judicial sources, Debat said authorities who raided the apartment of Kamel Daoudi found a notebook with Arabic writing that “seemed to be a code book.” French police suspect that Daoudi, a 27-year-old computer student, may belong to an Islamic extremist ring tied to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network. Daoudi and company allegedly were plotting to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris.
Debat said “it would be a major breakthrough” if investigators could use the notebook to decipher bin Laden’s communications including” messages they already may have intercepted.”
Thanks a million, Alexis and Jocelyn. The Associated Press is no fly-by-night outfit. Noveck’s story reached the AP’s 15,000 subscribing media organizations worldwide. Bin Laden, who is nothing if not connected, certainly now recognizes that “the Great Satan” knows of that notebook, since Debat said U.S. intelligence has been told about it. Bin Laden now can change codebooks or instead transmit useless disinformation. Either option creates work for the Pentagon, CIA, FBI, and Scotland Yard.
The AP also provided data for a map in the September 21 Wall Street Journal that specifically identified airfields, terrorist training bases, and even housing units in Afghanistan that allied forces might destroy. This information may have given the Taliban and bin Laden 16 days to evacuate themselves and their equipment.
“We’ve held back stories before under very select arrangements,” AP spokesman Jack Stokes told me. But with war blazing, AP’s writers still follow “the same guidelines that they always publish under: We have information, we put it in context and we publish it.”
Compare Debat’s and the AP’s irresponsibility to Winston Churchill’s decision not to clear Coventry, England before a November 14, 1940 Nazi bombing raid. An evacuation would have alerted Adolph Hitler that Britain had cracked his code. Indeed, Poland handed British spies a clone of a German Enigma code machine in July, 1939. London and Washington thus could read Berlin’s instructions to its Wehrmacht tank commanders, Luftwaffe pilots and U-boat captains throughout World War II. In one of the 20th Century’s toughest decisions, Churchill sacrificed Coventry to the greater good of foreseeing Nazi actions.
Back here, NBC News revealed October 1 that an overseas intelligence service intercepted a September 9 phone call in which bin Laden told his adoptive mother, “In two days, you’re going to hear big news, and you’re not going to hear from me for a while.” That’s probably the last time he’ll use that phone. NBC’s David Bloom reported last Friday that “in classified briefings, lawmakers are told that tunnels, tankers, and power plants plus past targets like the Pentagon and CIA are of particular concern” for new terrorist assaults. “Among those specifically singled out: the west coast ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and giant dams such as Hoover and Grand Coolie.” Any terrorists who might have stepped into an FBI trap at Grand Coolie now may go elsewhere.
Bloom added: “One person inside that classified briefing room told NBC, ‘We are very much at risk.’” Why not streamline things by broadcasting secret briefings on C-SPAN? Until then, stripping a few loose-lipped officials of their security clearances would send a strong pro-confidentiality message.
The stakes here could not be higher. U.S. and British soldiers are at risk right now. Innocent civilians in the civilized world could be slaughtered instantly by terrorists eager to shatter our resolve. As much as our enemies despise our culture, they and their supporters see our news programs, papers, and websites. Those should be the last places they find useful information. Reporters and their sources can discuss such interesting details in their memoirs once we win the war on terror. Meanwhile, zip it.