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My Problem with Federal Counter-Terrorism Efforts

October 10, 2007

cable_cord Now, I stay away from politics as much as possible on this blog, so I’ll try to skirt the issue as much as I can on this topic, but my dander’s up nonetheless.  As such, I imagine that my unhappiness with federal efforts will continue into well into the next administration, whether Democrat or Republican.

Some of you may have seen the news lately regarding the latest “bin Laden video.”  For those of you who live in Tivo-land and don’t watch the daily body count, here’s what happened.  On September 7th, Fox News broke the story that al Qaeda had released another video featuring Osama bin Laden.  Words were spoken, production values were up, threats were made, yadda yadda yadda as they say.

But the scary part hit the papers on October 8th when the Washington Post published an article detailing how Fox News got this video – and at what cost.  (See how I deftly avoiding saying, “And from whom?”  Yes, I do have some small bit of control over these things)

It turns out a small, private intelligence firm had spent the last few years building a rather impressive surveillance operation focused on al Qaeda-run and supported websites and servers.  Yep, we had access to their “Shared” drive.

Around 10AM, on the 7th, the company sent an email to White House counsel and the deputy assistant to the President for homeland security letting them know where they could download a copy of the video and a copy of the transcript, asking that they keep quiet about the whole thing and get ready for the video’s impending release.  Over the next three hours, dozens of copies were downloaded from the secret company server by a number of defense and homeland security agency computers.  Then, well, here’s the Post’s version of what happened next:

By midafternoon, several television news networks reported obtaining copies of the transcript. A copy posted around 3 p.m. on Fox News‘s Web site referred to SITE and included page markers identical to those used by the group. “This confirms that the U.S. government was responsible for the leak of this document,” Katz wrote in an e-mail to Leiter at 5 p.m.

Noah Schachtman, of the Wired blog, Danger Room, included a quote from the NY Sun that shows what a terrific blunder this was:

One intelligence officer who requested anonymity said in an interview last week that the intelligence community watched in real time the shutdown of the Obelisk system… [the] network of Web sites serves not only as the distribution system for the videos produced by Al Qaeda’s production company, As-Sahab, but also as the equivalent of a corporate intranet, dealing with such mundane matters as expense reporting and clerical memos to mid- and lower-level Qaeda operatives throughout the world.

While intranets are usually based on servers in a discrete physical location, Obelisk is a series of sites all over the Web, often with fake names, in some cases sites that are not even known by their proprietors to have been hacked by Al Qaeda…

By Friday evening, one of the key sets of sites in the Obelisk network, the Ekhlaas forum, was back on line. The Ekhlaas forum is a password-protected message board used by Qaeda for recruitment, propaganda dissemination, and as one of the entrance ways into Obelisk for those operatives whose user names are granted permission. Many of the other Obelisk sites are now offline and presumably moved to new secret locations on the World Wide Web.

And I’m supposed to count on these folks to provide the first line of defense, so that my first responder friends won’t have to run into buildings hit by airplanes, or trains full of murderous gas and death?  Simply amazing.

Photo credit: Patrick Crowley at moko.labs

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