In Defense of Leakers

IN DEFENSE OF LEAKERS….President Bush, with a flock of conservative apologists quacking in his wake, tried to convince us on Monday that we should all shut up about abuses of power because leaks of sensitive information have damaged our war against al-Qaeda in the past:

[Osama bin Laden] was using a type of cell phone, or a type of phone, and we put it in the newspaper ? somebody put it in the newspaper that this was the type of device he was using to communicate with his team, and he changed. I don’t know how I can make the point more clear that any time we give up ? and this is before they attacked us, by the way ? revealing sources, methods, and what we use the information for simply says to the enemy: change.

It turns out this “leak” was published in the conservative Washington Times, and they beg to differ with our president:

The story was a profile of bin Laden that said, in the 22nd paragraph, “He keeps in touch with the world via computers and satellite phones and has given occasional interviews to international news organizations.”

….But the story in The Washington Times was not based on a leak, and it did not say the U.S. was monitoring the phone. Reports of bin Laden’s using a satellite phone had been in the press for years.

I checked Nexis in order to read the entire Washington Times piece, and their summary is a fair one. That really is all it said, it really wasn’t a leak, and it really had been reported extensively before.

The Washington Times didn’t give away any state secrets. Likewise, Jay Rockefeller kept quiet about the secret NSA program even though he disapproved of it and the New York Times held its NSA story for over a year based on national security concerns. The simple fact is that most Americans genuinely care about national security and don’t leak damaging information. What they do leak is embarrassing information, and pretending that anything that’s embarrassing to the president is a breach of national security just makes people take national security less seriously than they should.

The fault for that, of course, lies with the president, not the leakers. He should take responsibility for that, instead of making up tall tales to cover his tracks.

UPDATE: Laura Rozen has tall tale #2.

UPDATE 2: Hmmm. Daniel Benjamin, co-author of The Age of Sacred Terror, writes in Slate that the Washington Times story really did tip off bin Laden:

This occurred less than two weeks after the destruction of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam by al-Qaida and the day after the United States had bombed al-Qaida targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. After that report, Bin Laden stopped using his phone and let his aides do the calling.

….The Washington Times story was a classic case of “sources and methods” being compromised. Bin Laden undoubtedly recalled the fate of the Chechen insurgent leader Djokar Dudaev, who was killed in 1996 by a Russian missile that homed in on its target using his satellite phone signal.

Benjamin is no Bush administration shill, but this story makes even less sense the way he tells it. Sure, the Times ran a story saying that bin Laden used a satellite phone, but that was nothing new. What was new was that the previous day the U.S. had sent a few cruise missiles his way. Maybe that’s what prompted him to dump the satellite phone? Especially if the missiles reminded bin Laden of Dudaev’s fate, as Benjamin suggests.