Tuesday, October 3, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Bin Laden’s Media Diet Looms in Manning Case

(CN) - With the trial of Bradley Manning poised to reveal that Osama bin Laden sent emails about Wikileaks, Courthouse News took a fresh look at how public documents from the Abbottabad raid show al-Qaida's close watch on major news networks.

A charge of aiding the enemy is traditionally used for direct communications with an "enemy," rather than leaks to a news outlet, and a press disclosure has not been prosecuted under this statute since the Civil War.

Noting that the precedent could make a capital offense out of any unauthorized disclosure regarding national defense, the American Civil Liberties Union called the revival of this prosecution "breathtaking" in a blog post.

New York Times columnist Bill Keller speculated about the potential scope of the charge in a March 10 column after Manning said he tried to contact The New York Times and the Washington Post before uploading to WikiLeaks.

Though critical of Manning, the column called the top charge against him "disturbing overkill."

"If Manning's leak provided comfort to the enemy, then so does every news story about cuts in defense spending, or opposition to drone strikes, or setbacks in Afghanistan," Keller remarked.

That statement echoes an unrelated bin Laden letter that West Point-based Combating Terrorism Center translated into English and published last year as part of its study, "Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined?"

"This year has been the worst year for [the U.S.] in Afghanistan since they invaded it," bin Laden purportedly wrote on Oct. 21, 2010. "The number of their dead has never been this high according to their own reports. Their financial crisis continues. Britain has lowered is defense budget and America is reducing the budget of the Pentagon."

Bin Laden does not reveal in the message how he learned of this information.

Later in the letter, the al-Qaida leader discussed plans to deliver a statement to U.S. news outlets for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

"If al-Jazirah [sic] shows responsiveness, we should contact the correspondent of al-Jazirah [sic] Arabic and English and tell them that we are willing to cooperate with them in the area of covering the tenth anniversary by answering any questions that you think the public is interested in," bin Laden purportedly wrote.

He added: "We should also look for an American channel that can be close to being unbiased, such as CBS, or other channel that has political motives that make it interested in broadcasting the point of view of al-Mujahidin."

Bin Laden did not otherwise explain why he perceived CBS as a potentially receptive outlet.

In surveying 17 documents taken from the Abbottabad raid, the Combating Terrorism Center focused on how counterterrorism efforts have fractured al-Qaida, but multiple letters show how the terror group monitored and tried to court the media.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in an apparent reply to bin Laden's letter by Adam Gadahn, an American who became al-Qaida's spokesman.

Dated January 2011, the odd document proposes a list of major news broadcasters whose "professionalism and neutrality" al-Qaida could supposedly trust for a statement a decade after Sept. 11.


"From the professional point of view, they are all on one level - except (Fox News) channel which falls into the abyss as you know, and lacks neutrality too," Gadahn wrote, according to the translation (parentheses in original).

"As for the neutrality of CNN in English, it seems to be in cooperation with the government more than the others (except for Fox News of course)," he added. "Its Arabic version brings good and detailed reports about al-Sahab [sic] releases, with a lot of quotations from the original text."

As-Sahab is the name of al-Qaida's propaganda arm.

Gadahn's media criticism continues: "That means they copy directly from the releases or its gist. It is not like what other channels and sites do, copying from news agencies like Reuters, AP and others."

"I used to think that MSNBC channel may be good and neutral a bit, but is has lately fired two of the most famous journalists - Keith Olberman and Octavia Nasser [sic] the Lebanese - because they released some statements that were open for argument," Gadahn purportedly wrote.

Octavia Nasr actually worked for CNN before she was fired for Tweeting that she respected a Shiite cleric with ties to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

Jumping off bin Laden's endorsement of CBS, Gadahn noted that "60 Minutes" has "some popularity and a good reputation for its long broadcast time."

He was more partial, however, to the channel's chief competitor.

"ABC channel is all right; actually it could be one of the best channels, as far as we are concerned," Gadahn wrote. "It is interested in al-Qa'ida issues, particularly the journalist Brian Ross, who is specialized in terrorism. The channel is still proud for its interview with the Shaykh [bin Laden]. It also broadcasted excerpts from a speech of mine on the fourth anniversary."

Bin Laden's "special interview" never came to pass; the terrorist leader was killed in May 2011, months before the Sept. 11 anniversary.

Though Gadahn's letter did not mention WikiLeaks, it did discuss a strategy for increasing news interest that has become the website's calling card.

"I suggest that we should distribute it to more than one channel, so that there will be healthy competition between the channels in broadcasting the material, so that no other channel takes the lead," Gadahn wrote. "It should be sent for example to ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN and maybe PBS and VOA. As for Fox News, let her die in her anger."

Though none of these messages appear to show that al-Qaida learned classified information from a mainstream news outlet, the West Point group complained that its translation was "not adequate," and that the 17 declassified documents represent only a "fraction" of the "thousands of items" reportedly captured.

The WikiLeaks-related emails, for example, are not included in the study.

Manning's lawyer, David Coombs, has not announced whether he sought documents from the Abbottabad raid to defend his client.

Courthouse News placed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that would help compare how Osama bin Laden used WikiLeaks versus establishment news outlets.

The office replied that it had no responsive bin Laden emails, and said that another agency likely was the custodian of the documents.

The acknowledgement section of "Letters from Abbottabad" suggests otherwise.

"We are thankful to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence for entrusting us with the analysis and release of these documents to the public for the first time," the study states.

Courthouse News plans to appeal ODNI's determination and has placed a new request broadening the search to include other documents and information relevant to the topic.

Categories / Uncategorized

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.