Eli Lake and Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast reported, citing three intelligence officials, reported that the “crucial intercept that prompted the U.S. government to close embassies in 22 countries was a conference call between al Qaeda’s senior leaders and representatives of several of the group’s affiliates throughout the region.”
The report immediately set off sceptical reactions around the world, as people questioned whether terrorist leaders would really have an important conversation on a medium that the U.S. government has been surveilling so aggressively.
It turns out, according to one of the authors, that the “conference call” wasn’t over the phone:
“We used conference call because it was generic enough. But it was not a telephone based communications,” Eli Lake tweeted in response to a question about the call.
Despite Lake’s justification, the original article clearly suggested that there was a conference call: “a conference call that included the leaders or representatives of the top leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates calling in from different locations.”
Lake argues that conference call “is a fairly generic term.”
But Merriam Webster defines the term specifically as “a telephone call by which a caller can speak with several people at the same time.”
So it’s understandable why everyone was confused, especially since one of the Beast’s sources explicitly said “phone call.”
“This was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom,” the Beast quoted one of the unnamed U.S. intelligence officials as saying. “All you need to do is look at that list of places we shut down to get a sense of who was on the phone call.”
Here’s some of the scepticism from journalists and experts:
Al Qaeda analyst J.M. Berger was astonished:
I’m flabbergasted that these guys thought they could do a conference call like this without it being intercepted.
— J.M. Berger (@intelwire) August 7, 2013
So was former State Department adviser on counterterrorism Will McCants:
In light of Snowden leaks, Zawahiri is either a master manipulator or the world’s worst terror boss.
— Will McCants (@will_mccants) August 7, 2013
Researcher of militants Andrew Lebovich didn’t buy it:
An AQ affiliate conference call? That seems like…a stretch.
— Andrew Lebovich (@tweetsintheME) August 7, 2013
Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Barton Gellman explained the scepticism best:
— Barton Gellman (@bartongellman) August 7, 2013
The Beast reported that “Al Qaeda leaders had assumed the conference calls … were secure” and that “the various al Qaeda leaders discussed in vague terms plans for a pending attack.”
Lake maintains that “it was a conference call, but not over a telephone line. We left out some details at the request of sources.”
So what was the medium for the conference call? That’s unclear, but it must have been electronic to reach from west Africa to east Asia.
Another intelligence analyst familiar with government gathering techniques told Business Insider that it’s possible it was a conference over another platform, possibly on the internet.
So, some type of Google Hangout for terrorists?
But one of the Beast’s sources directly said it was a “phone call.”
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