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Breaking The Code

Remember those Osama bin Laden tapes that were aired on September 7? Now, according to the Washington Post, it appears that the "premature disclosure tipped al Qaeda to a security breach and destroyed a years-long surveillance operation that the company has used to intercept and pass along secret messages, videos, and advance warnings of suicide bombings from the terrorist group's communications network." In the New York Sun, Eli Lake has more on how al Qaeda shut down its Internet communications system rapidly right after the leak. It appears that whoever leaked the tapes to ABC News and other outlets caused the United States to lose an exceedingly valuable intelligence source. And what was gained? A few days' advance notice of tapes al Qaeda would have put out openly on the Internet.

When a report in the Chicago Tribune in December 1941, just after Pearl Harbor, suggested that we had broken the Japanese codes, Franklin Roosevelt wanted Tribune Publisher Col. Robert McCormick prosecuted for treason, knowing full well that the penalty for treason in wartime was death. But Roosevelt was convinced by others that such a prosecution would only further alert the Japanese to the fact that we had broken their codes. Fortunately, the Japanese drew no such inference from the Tribune story, and Richard Norton Smith, in his admirable biography of McCormick, The Colonel, argues that the implication in the Tribune story that the codes were broken was not intentional and arose from the misediting, by Washington editors, of a dispatch by reporters elsewhere.

Is anyone in our government as exercised by the leak that resulted in the shutdown of the al Qaeda Internet network as Franklin Roosevelt was by the story that appeared to reveal that we had broken the Japanese codes? Someone should be, although I'm not suggesting a prosecution for treason.

By Michael Barone