Jihadi-sniffers blame White House for leaking secrets
Backdoor fingered in DC leaky brief rumpus
An American company dedicated to monitoring al-Qaeda internet activities says that leaks from the US government have destroyed web-snooping capabilities painstakingly built up over years.
SITE, the "Search for International Terrorist Entities", is a small Washington-based outfit which trawls the web for jihadist messages and propaganda. The firm's analysts listen to the much-pontificated-upon net "chatter", often held by media spookery pundits to foretell important terrorist events or trends. SITE operators also penetrate password-protected websites, and generally sniff about in places they aren't welcome.
Last month, according to SITE founder Rita Katz, her people managed to get hold of the latest Osama bin Laden vid prior to its public release. Thinking to give the White House a chance to prep its response ahead of time, she gave Bush administration staffers a link to a private SITE webpage so that they could download copies of Osama's latest thoughts.
When emailing the link to White House counsel Fred Fielding and Michael Leiter of the National Counterterrorism Centre, Katz wrote:
"Please understand the necessity for secrecy. We ask you not to distribute... it could harm our investigations."
Within 20 minutes, according to SITE's computer records - which have been reviewed and verified by the Washington Post - intelligence and security agencies all across the US government had begun to download the video from the SITE site. These organisations included the CIA, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. Within five hours, the video and accompanying English transcript was on Fox News and other Western media outlets, well in advance of the al-Qaeda release.
Katz says the Fox material definitely originated with SITE, as the transcript page markers on the Fox website were identical to her people's. She says that the premature leak was disastrous. Al-Qaeda supporters, realising that access had been gained to network locations which they had considered secure, immediately changed their security procedures.
"Techniques that took years to develop are now ineffective and worthless," says Katz.
SITE makes its money from various playing clients, said to include both US and overseas government intelligence agencies. The US government refuses to comment on whether it already had the bin Laden video before it was supplied by SITE, but Katz said that Fielding made it clear to her that White House officials at least didn't possess a copy until she gave them one.
Rival backdoor-sniffing net intel pundit Ben Venzke, of IntelCenter, advised Katz to dry her eyes. He suggested that the leaks were an inevitable consequence of giving the video to White House people, rather than closemouthed spooks who might have kept it secret rather than passing the link to their entire address book.
"It is not just about getting the video first," Venzke told the Washington Post.
"It is about having the proper methods and procedures in place to make sure that the appropriate intelligence gets to where it needs to go in the intelligence community and elsewhere in order to support ongoing counterterrorism operations."
Katz would certainly seem to have forfeited most of her claim to being considered as a serious undercover researcher/spook-for-hire as soon as she approached White House officials directly. It doesn't look especially good, either - if you want to be seen as a discreet and reliable secret operator, betrayed in the media by headline-hungry, leaky politicoes - to then run off in a snit and give a comprehensive briefing to the Washington Post. Out-leaking the leakers, as it were; or perhaps debriefing the briefers.
And after all, we're scarcely talking about the hottest intel poop of the century here. It was a propaganda video, for god's sake. Osama's lads were about to release it publicly. Even to begin with, Katz comes across more as a journalist jumping the gun on an embargoed press release, not as a spy or secret agent.
Why, it's almost as if SITE were actually a media beastie rather than an intelligence one.
The Post writeup is here.®