Fox News' John Gibson falsely claimed that the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times report that revealed warrantless domestic wiretaps approved by the Bush administration "probably did do damage to national security because it may have tipped off Al Qaeda that we could listen to their cell-phone calls to people inside this country." In fact, media reports indicate that Al Qaeda was aware that the United States was monitoring its cell-phone calls well before the disclosure of the warrantless wiretapping program.
On the April 21 edition of Fox News' The Big Story, host John Gibson falsely claimed that the December 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning report by New York Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau that revealed warrantless domestic wiretaps approved by the Bush administration "probably did do damage to national security because it may have tipped off Al Qaeda that we could listen to their cell-phone calls to people inside this country." Contrary to the suggestions of Gibson and others, the new information revealed by the Times was not that the United States spies on terrorist suspects but, rather, that the Bush administration has undertaken such surveillance without obtaining warrants from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In fact, Gibson has no reason to believe Al Qaeda was not already "tipped off" to U.S. efforts to monitor its phone conversations; Al Qaeda was already taking precautions to avoid surveillance of its cell-phone conversations years before Risen and Lichtblau reported on the surveillance program, notably through the use of untraceable disposable cell phones.
As the Times revealed on December 16, 2005, President Bush issued a secret presidential order shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on phone and email communications that originate from or are received within the United States and to do so without the court approval normally required under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.
According to media reports, Al Qaeda was taking precautions pertaining to its cell-phone use for years prior to the Times article. For example, ABC News reported on January 12, in a story about bulk purchases of disposable cell phones in the United States, that Al Qaeda used disposable cell phones in its March 2004 bombings in Spain:
The phones -- which do not require purchasers to sign a contract or have a credit card -- have many legitimate uses, and are popular with people who have bad credit or for use as emergency phones tucked away in glove compartments or tackle boxes. But since they can be difficult or impossible to track, law enforcement officials say the phones are widely used by criminal gangs and terrorists.
Law enforcement officials say the phones were used to detonate the bombs terrorists used in the Madrid train attacks in March 2004.
"The application of prepaid phones for nefarious reasons, is really widespread. For example, the terrorists in Madrid used prepaid phones to detonate the bombs in the subway trains that killed more than 200 people," said Roger Entner, a communications consultant.
Further, an October 17, 2002, USA Today article indicated Al Qaeda's awareness of the issue and its implementation of countermeasures against NSA eavesdropping. USA Today stated: "The NSA faces new obstacles in penetrating al-Qaeda because the terror group has learned how to evade U.S. interception technology -- chiefly by using disposable cell phones or by avoiding phones altogether and substituting human messengers and face-to-face meetings to convey orders."
Additionally, Media Matters noted that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden reportedly stopped using his satellite phone within days of the August 20, 1998, attack on Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Also, Media Matters noted during the February 12 broadcast of ABC News' This Week, with host George Stephanopoulos, Washington Post columnist George F. Will dismissed as "peculiar" the claim that enemies of the United States were tipped off by the NSA program's disclosure:
WILL: I want to go back to the NSA thing. The administration says talking about this tips off the enemy. Now, the idea that our enemies think that the most technologically sophisticated nation in the world isn't using all its advantages to eavesdrop on them is peculiar. In 1978, we passed FISA. That alerted them, if any alerting was needed, that we were indeed listening in, passing the Patriot Act alerted them to what we were going to do and were going to not do. What I do not understand in this whole bizarre week we just had, George, our arguing about the NSA surveillance, the administration saying desperately important to pass the Patriot Act.
From the April 21 edition of The Big Story with John Gibson:
GIBSON: What is really going on here is a secret war by the CIA types against President Bush and his policies. This is the group inside the CIA -- think Valerie Plame, now -- who think their opinions and analysis of the world should trump whatever it is the president thinks.
If the president goes against their opinion -- let's say, and goes to war -- they call The New York Times and start leaking embarrassing stuff. It is a war against Bush waged by Americans. It's wrong; it's illegal; and people are going to start going to jail. That's good.
Next up, whoever was leaking to James Risen of The New York Times. His story about the secret NSA wiretapping program probably did do damage to national security because it may have tipped off Al Qaeda that we could listen to their cell-phone calls to people inside this country.
Now that the "secret prisons" leaker is out of the way, the counter-leaking team over at the CIA can concentrate on Risen's leaker. With any luck, we'll soon hear the sound of the jailhouse door slamming again.