WASHINGTON – The White House on Tuesday denied it was the source of a leak to the press last month of an Al Qaeda video that had been acquired by a private intelligence organization and forwarded to Bush administration officials.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino confirmed press reports that two top White House officials had been contacted by the SITE Institute, which monitors terror Web sites and other communications, regarding a video of Usama bin Laden it had obtained four days before it was officially released by Al Qaeda.
The news of the video spread quickly throughout several administration agencies, and was shortly leaked to the press. SITE Institute Director Rita Katz told The Washington Post that she had requested secrecy for the information, and the ensuing leak undermined work to develop hard-earned sources who can provide the early intelligence.
"Techniques that took years to develop are now ineffective and worthless," Katz said.
Perino told reporters Tuesday that neither White House counsel Fred Fielding nor Joel Bagnal, a White House homeland security aide, leaked the news of the site. Katz said that she also had forwarded the note to at least one high-ranking official at the National Counterterrorism Center.
Instead, Perino said the White House officials properly pointed Katz to the office of Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and the NCTC.
It remained unclear Tuesday who leaked the information to the media. Perino said that because the White House handed over the piece of information to the intelligence community, that any further questions about what happened, or what sort of investigation might take place should be asked of the DNI's office.
She said, however, that doesn't necessarily mean that the DNI's office was the source of the leak.
"The director of national intelligence is the overseer and coordinator of all intelligence agencies. That's the appropriate place for me to refer you," she told reporters at the daily White House press briefing.
She also tried to assuage fears that the administration doesn't properly handle sensitive information.
"We are concerned about it, and what we wanted for the American people to know, (is) that if they have information, they should feel comfortable to give it to us and to make sure that their sources are protected. ... I think this is a very isolated incident, and I'm sure the intelligence community takes it very seriously as well," Perino said.
Katz told The Post that within 20 minutes of tipping the White House to the information — a link to the video on her organization's Web site — several government agencies began downloading the video from SITE computer servers.
Katz said the activity tipped off Al Qaeda to its security hole, and in turn destroyed a SITE surveillance operation that somehow had figured out how to intercept secret messages, videos and advance warnings of homicide bombings.
White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend, speaking to reporters earlier Tuesday, said she had not seen internal White House e-mails regarding the bin Laden video.
"We have not conducted an investigation here. I do know that my deputy didn't get the link, and in fact e-mailed her asking her to please send it to the deputy of NCTC, which she then confirmed that she had done," Townsend said.
"What I can tell you is, the DNI and the intelligence community will need to look at who had access to it — I mean, it's, sort of, the typical, kind of, leak investigation that will have to be considered and acted on as appropriately determined by the DNI," she said.
Townsend said that because the link to the video was provided to the intelligence community "we here at the White House are unable to conduct an investigation, and I leave this to the director of national intelligence to ascertain what's the appropriate way of dealing with this and understanding what happened so we can ensure it doesn't happen again."
Speaking with FOX News, Steven Pomerantz, a former FBI counter terror chief, said sometimes private organizations like SITE will come up with intelligence information that helps antiterror efforts "based on some unique capability or unique opportunity that they have. ... But in terms of the overall gathering of intelligence, 99.9 percent of that is gathered by the government."
He said he believed it would be a mistake to be alarmed by something like this to imply that the government's ability to collect intelligence has somehow been severely impacted by an event like this. That may be an exaggeration."