Thursday, October 11

Rita Katz, SITE, Obelisk, pwnage, Fred Fielding, intelligence leaks, etcetera, etcetera

Readers who are new to the story can get oriented by going to the source of the first footnote I provide. But the gist will become clear as you read along. I am plunging in without preamble because I'm really talking to what I hope are just a few Americans -- ones who won't rest until they have conjured public investigations of a matter that in wartime should be reviewed behind closed doors. Why don't these Americans save bother and just invite senior al Qaeda operatives to poke around inside US intelligence agencies?

With that off my chest, here is my understanding of the story so far:

When Rita Katz's timeline of events is compared with other documented events, she actually VINDICATES the White House of involvement with the INITIAL leak of the latest OBL video/video transcript.

Hard to believe? Then let's review the facts of the matter involving Katz, her SITE Intelligence Group company, ABC News, and the White House:

1. According to Katz's account to The Washington Post, on Sept 7 "around 10:00 AM" she sent Fred Fielding at the White House an e-mail with a link to a private SITE Web page containing the video and an English transcript. (1)

2. That was not her first contact with Fielding about the matter, but according to Katz it was the first time she relayed the video/transcript to him.

3. Meanwhile, at precisely 9:23 AM on Sept 7, ABC News Blotter online published a photo from the latest OBL video, which was time-stamped with the date 9/6/07, and a discussion of its contents.(2)

4. Here is an excerpt from the ABC Report. The emphasis in the last sentence is mine:
Intelligence sources tell ABC News they believe the video message from Osama bin Laden is authentic, recently produced and evidence the al Qaeda leader is still alive.

According to government sources, an initial analysis of the tape indicates "a lot of chest thumping" and of course historical references "alluding" to the successful attack on New York.

And a CIA spokesman told ABC News, "It's quite possible this is a new video."

...U.S. authorities earlier this morning said the tape's transcript is aimed at potential suicide bombers who [OBL] urges to carry out missions against the West
So. Earlier than 9:23 AM the CIA and unnamed authorities had reviewed both a transcript and a video tape -- even though Katz informed the Post that she had sent Fielding the data around 10:00 AM on the same day.

5) Furthermore, the date stamp on the tape suggests that ABC was in possession of the tape and possibly the transcript as early as September 6.

6) That would be the day before Ms. Katz claims she relayed the SITE data to the White House.

7) Let's assess at this point:

The video and transcript in ABC's possession were either:

> pirated from SITE by an undisclosed party or SITE willingly provided to ABC, or

> different versions of SITE's data, and provided by a source(s) other than SITE.


9) This does not mean that the White House did not share the SITE data even though they deny doing so. Indeed, there are events to suggest that they shared the SITE video and transcript with at least one government agency shortly after receiving them.(3)

10) The events clearly caused Ms Katz to leap to a conclusion: "This confirms that the U.S. government was responsible for the leak of [the SITE] document," Katz wrote in an e-mail.(1)

11) Ms. Katz may have been speaking the literal truth if the White House leaked the SITE data; i.e., they would have leaked HER data. But the cat was already out of the bag by the time the White House could have shared Katz's data.

12) Was it possible the White House leaked the same data but obtained from another source? No, according to Ms. Katz:
Katz said Fielding and [Joel Bagnal, deputy assistant to the president for homeland security] made it clear to her that the White House did not possess a copy [of the transcript/video] at the time she offered hers.(1)
Thus ends a recitation of facts. Now to some general observations and speculation:

To summarize, by the time Katz shared her data with Fielding it was already old news, thanks to ABC Blotter. So there would be no legal or security reasons preventing the White House from sharing the SITE transcript with several government agencies -- any of which could have passed the data to news media. Even the White House could have shared the data with media. Again, by that time it didn't matter how many media outlets saw the tape and transcript; the information was already a matter of public record.

As to Katz's claim that she included with the data she sent Fielding a request not to disclose it --
"Please understand the necessity for secrecy," Katz wrote in her e-mail. "We ask you not to distribute . . . [as] it could harm our investigations."(1)
-- the timeline is very awkward for Rita Katz, no matter sincere she might be. To understand why this is so, put yourself in Fielding's place:

You're sitting in your office in front of your computer reading the ABC Blotter report on the top secret OBL video and transcript. This is after your boss called and screamed at you to go to ABC News Online.

Some time back (we don't know what day Katz first contacted Fielding about sharing the data) Ms. Katz had offered you the very same data that ABC had.

Forty minutes later, Ping! an email arrives for you from Rita with a link to the promised data, and carrying her admonishment to keep it secret.

Given the kind of company SITE is, Mr. Fielding could have readily assumed that within moments of the ABC Blotter report appearing online, a SITE newsbot would have been all over it. SITE specializes in digging up internet data on terrorist videos.

In short, it's hard to believe that by the time Katz sent the email to Fielding she didn't know that the 'secret' data she was sending had already gone round the world 40 minutes earlier.

So while Katz might feel within her rights to be angry with Fielding, this was not a game of tiddlywinks she was playing. Once the secret was out, no one at the White House would be under obligation to keep the data secret unless they'd signed a contract to that effect, which they hadn't. SITE is in the business of selling information.

Next, why would the White House and/or an intelligence/defense agency share the SITE data with the media -- if indeed that happened -- once they knew the subject material had been made public? There are any number of reasons, including the determination to seem on top of the matter. But any answer would be purely speculative at this point because again the White House and all concerned parties are denying they shared the data.

None of the above speaks to the video and transcript that ABC, CIA and other agencies had obtained prior to the White House receiving the SITE data. Who provided those entities with the data?

We can't even speculate at this point because there are so many private and government entities collecting such data. Really, anyone with the will and technical knowledge to hack al Qaeda's extranet, code name Obelisk, could have come by the data. The video -- which was actually a draft of the final video, according to Nick Grace of Clandestine Radio -- was stored on Obelisk.

So we come to the reason for the hue and cry. The story is that as soon as al Qaeda operatives learned of the ABC Blotter report, this alerted them that Obelisk had been penetrated, so they shut it down.

If that story is correct, then by the time the White House might have shared the SITE data the damage to US clandestine intelligence-gathering efforts would have already been done by ABC Blotter. That's provided damage was done to any intelligence gathering operation other than SITE's. One thing is known for certain: a great deal of damage was done to al Qaeda. Dr. Rusty Shackleford provided this scholarly analysis of the hacking of Obelisk:
But no matter how hard they try, they will never be as good as we are.
We pwn you al-Qaeda and as-Sahab. We. Frickin. Pwn. You.
Video gaming and computer hacking illiterates can see footnote 4 if they have any desire to learn the meaning of pwn.

Much of the legwork for this post (and the reasoning) was done by bloggers who came to the Katz-ABC story earlier than Pundita. I'd like to give those bloggers mention and thanks, and with links to the posts I read:

Rusty Shackleford at Jawa Report

Greyhawk and Cassandra at Milblogs

Thanks to Dan Riehl at Riehl World View for starting the ball rolling for me.

And thanks to the John Batchelor Show for the Obelisk angle and for filling in some of the blanks.

1) The Washington Post

2) The Blotter

3) From the Wapo report (see footnote #1):
"within minutes of Katz's e-mail to the White House, government-registered computers began downloading the video from SITE's server, according to a log of file transfers. The records show dozens of downloads over the next three hours from computers with addresses registered to defense and intelligence agencies.

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.
4) From Wikipedia:
"Pwn is a slang term that implies domination and/or humiliation of a rival. It sprang from the similar term "owned" and is used primarily in the Internet gaming culture to taunt an opponent that has just been soundly defeated. Examples include "pwnage" or "you just got pwned". It can also be used, especially by non-gamers, in the context of getting "pwned" by The Man.

In Internet security jargon, to "pwn" means "to compromise" or "to control", specifically another computer (server or PC), web site, gateway device, or application; it is synonymous with one of the definitions of hacking. An outside party who has "owned" or "pwned" a system has obtained unauthorized administrative control of the system.

The term was one of 16 to appear on the 2006 "List of Words and Phrases Banished from the Queen's English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness," released annually by Lake Superior State University.

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