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The Nation

Rumsfeld Says Leaks to Media Aid Al Qaeda

Security: According to a report, terrorists have used the press to learn of Pentagon capabilities.

July 16, 2002|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned senior military and civilian officials at the Pentagon this week that classified information obtained by the press is being used by Al Qaeda operatives to plan attacks on the United States, according to a memo obtained by The Times.

In the July 12 memo, Rumsfeld wrote that leaking of information from the Pentagon to the media "is damaging our country's ability to stop terrorist acts and is putting American lives at risk."

He attached the memo to an unclassified CIA report, prepared at his request, saying that Al Qaeda planners "have learned much about our counterterrorist intelligence capabilities from U.S. and foreign media."

Rumsfeld has been fierce about the need to keep the Pentagon's secrets, and in the early days of the Afghanistan campaign he warned publicly that officials who leak classified information about the maneuvers of special operations forces violate federal criminal law and put soldiers' lives at risk.

But in this new memo, Rumsfeld acknowledged that the leaks have persisted. He asked his top aides and the military heads to "meet with your staff to discuss the seriousness of the damaging lack of professionalism we continue to see on a daily basis."

Rumsfeld's memo was prompted by a recent New York Times report on the Pentagon's plans to invade Iraq, a senior Pentagon official who requested anonymity told The Times. The article relied on a classified planning document the paper said it had obtained from a defense official. The report infuriated Rumsfeld, Pentagon officials said.

Another senior defense official, who asked not to be identified, said that while no formal inquiry of that leak has been launched, "it is being looked at who might have shared that information."

Rumsfeld has not called for investigations into the origin of information previously leaked to the press, the official said. Asked at a news conference in October about his desire to find the sources of leaks, Rumsfeld said he was "too busy ... to run around trying to find who did that." But the fact that he has now asked his deputies to meet with their staffs and report back to him reflects how seriously he views the issue, the official said.

The Pentagon is so vast and so diverse that news of its operations and its internal debates are often released to the press by officials with a stake in the outcome of policy decisions.

By the standards of recent conflicts, the Pentagon places far greater restrictions today on access to military operations and to senior military commanders.

During the 1991 Gulf War, dozens of journalists were permitted to accompany Army units that swept through western Iraq or to join Marines who punched through to Kuwait. They interviewed top generals and received regular briefings from Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the head of U.S. Central Command.

Although friction arose over several issues, including delays in the military's processing of journalistic dispatches, news organizations and the Pentagon reached agreement in 1992 on a basic outline for future war coverage. That led to closer interaction between journalists and troops during the U.S. interventions in Somalia and Haiti.

But under Rumsfeld, the Pentagon has maintained an exceedingly close hold on information, particularly regarding the conflict in Afghanistan and other aspects of the war on terrorism.

Rumsfeld first spoke out publicly on the subject in October, when news of a raid by 100 Army Rangers and other Special Forces commandos was reported while the troops were still inside Afghanistan. He admitted that the leak did not endanger U.S. troops, and all returned from the mission safely. But, he said, "it was something that [showed] disregard for the lives of the people involved in that operation."

Intelligence officials were furious in September when Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that the United States had intercepted a call between two associates of Osama bin Laden suggesting their involvement. Intelligence officials said later that the release of the highly classified information caused Al Qaeda operatives to stop using telephones.

According to the CIA report distributed by Rumsfeld, captured fighters have stated that Al Qaeda operatives are extremely security-conscious and have altered their practices in response to what they have learned in the press about Pentagon capabilities.

Public disclosures have "jeopardized highly fragile and very sensitive intelligence capabilities that we require for the successful prosecution of the war against terrorism," the report says.

It adds that the disclosures have made potential allies and sources in foreign countries less willing to work with U.S. agents out of fear their aid will be publicized.

The Pentagon has no evidence that the leak to the New York Times or any other has endangered U.S. military operations, a senior defense official said.

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