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PostWatch: An irregular correction to the Washington Post

Brought to you by Christopher Rake


Monday, June 24, 2002
7:45 AM

THE RAVEN FLIES AT MIDNIGHT, PART DEUX... Walter Pincus writes today about different explanations for why the Administration, with Dick Cheney as point man, is taking leaked NSA secrets so seriously. It has now turned into an "FBI investigation of members and staffers of the joint House-Senate intelligence committee," Pincus reports.

The Cheney reaction, reinforced by President Bush, surprised some government officials who say the central information in the broadcast and newspaper reports last week has been public knowledge for months. "This basic story has been around a long time," one senior government official said.

Yes, the basic story that we intercepted some communications about some attack before Sept. 11. That vague story has been vaguely around.

So why did the White House react so sharply to stories that the National Security Agency had picked up Arabic-language communications on Sept. 10 saying that something important was going to happen the next day, but did not translate them until Sept. 12? One answer, according to longtime observers of the Washington news-leak game, is that Cheney wanted to "tighten up" the committee to prevent exposure of serious information. Another view is that the release did not help the administration because it opened the door to another round of criticism of the intelligence agencies' handling of information. A third view was that Cheney's call and the subsequent request by the committee co-chairmen for an FBI investigation of the panel's members and staff "really takes NSA off the front pages."

A fourth view is that some idiot compromised security.

Okay. Pincus continues:

The stories that triggered Cheney's call last Wednesday to the co-chairmen of the House-Senate intelligence panel began when CNN reported details from the intercepts. CNN included two phrases from the conversations: "The match is about to begin" and "Tomorrow is zero hour." The network attributed its information to "two congressional sources." The next day, The Washington Post and other newspapers confirmed the CNN story, citing U.S. intelligence officials. However, on Sept. 22, 2001, just 11 days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Washington Times reported that on Sept. 10, U.S. intelligence agencies had "detected discussions between Osama bin Laden's lieutenants of an impending 'big attack."

Granted, I'm not an intelligence official, but I know something about tracking documents and other communications. Statements as exact as "The match is about to begin" and "tomorrow is zero hour" were stated by specific people at specific times and places, making it much easier for Al Qaeda to walk the cat back and pinpoint how those communications were compromised.

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