Intelligence: June 7, 2002


Looking at all the "what ifs?" of September 11, 2001, the one that looms largest was tapping of Osama bin Laden's Inmarsat Compact M satellite phone (costing $15,000, with an all weather external antenna and battery and a block of 3,000 pre-paid minutes). Inmarsat's main market is ships at sea. The NSA was monitoring this phone and it provided a bonanza of information on al Qaeda. Even though used the phone primarily for social calls, enough useful items were extracted from his conversations to help in the conviction of the men responsible for 1998 terror bombings in Africa. Al Qaeda have not made much use of modern cryptography, preferring simpler codes. These codes can be deciphered, as they are the same type of simple codes used by criminals for years. Apparently, tour guides in NSA, during the late 1990s, took to playing takes of bin Laden making his social calls. This eventually got into a news item and soon thereafter bin Laden stopped using his satellite phone. This casual attitude towards valuable intelligence sources is common in Washington, DC. While Congress gets most of the blame, it's the Executive Branch that is the source of most leaks. There are so many appointed officials working for the president, who have access to classified data, and don't have to worry about getting re-elected, that there's always a few of them willing to leak something for one reason or another. The bin Laden phone leak story was not seen as exceptional at the time, but then came September 11, 2001. And the leaks go on.




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