Friday, October 12, 2007

"We never thought the day would come"

By Carol Gee

When private companies get into the intelligence business we traditionally think about the "gum shoe" -- Private Eye/Mickey Spillane -- model. But this story is a bizarre new twist on privatized intelligence info and a government leak, perhaps even by the DNI?

I am not saying this is the case here, but DNI McConnell has the authority to declassify at will. I have written at S/SW about the questions this raised with Members of Congress in the past. I quote from the Washington Post's story headlined, "U.S. Intelligence Officials Will Probe Leak of Bin Laden Video." Written by Joby Warrick on Wednesday, October 10, 2007, the article opens with this astonishing news:

U.S. intelligence officials will investigate allegations that the government improperly leaked a secretly obtained Osama bin Laden video, alerting al-Qaeda to a security gap in the terrorist group's internal communications network that it was able to shut, an intelligence spokesman said yesterday.

Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the director of national intelligence, said officials are looking into the leak allegation by the SITE Intelligence Group, which passed the video on to the White House and the director of national intelligence's office before its leak.

"At this point, we don't think there was a leak from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence or the National Counterterrorism Center," Feinstein said.

. . . SITE provides copies of videos and other al-Qaeda material to subscribers, which include intelligence agencies, private companies and news organizations. SITE has acknowledged alerting clients that it had obtained the bin Laden video and would release it when safe to do so. During this period, SITE also negotiated with at least two television networks that were interested in obtaining the video once cleared for release, but it reached no deal before the video was leaked.

This is what I feel might possibly have happened. Based on sheer speculation, I think that when DNI McConnell got the tape, he perhaps did the normal director thing. He passed it along to a subordinate, who then passed it around, without making sure that his people knew of the proprietary nature of the SITE material. Though this is hard to believe, because I am sure that NSA has dealt with SITE in the past. That was one thing that SITE was concerned about, of course. But the revelation of "sources and methods" was obviously much more worrisome.

A Fox News article revealed that the FBI did not think there had been severe damage to national security. To quote:

Speaking with FOX News, Steven Pomerantz, a former FBI counter terror chief, said sometimes private organizations like SITE will come up with intelligence information that helps antiterror efforts "based on some unique capability or unique opportunity that they have. ... But in terms of the overall gathering of intelligence, 99.9 percent of that is gathered by the government."

He said he believed it would be a mistake to be alarmed by something like this to imply that the government's ability to collect intelligence has somehow been severely impacted by an event like this. That may be an exaggeration."

Well, for SITE's part, their source is gone and they were severely impacted. And of course the al Qaeda source may have been severely impacted as well, perhaps fatally.

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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