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New Tape

One of the speakers at the Al Qaeda 2.0 conference (Scheuer, I think) went on an extended rant about how the CIA had been reduced to bringing in ornithologists to listen to Osama bin Laden's tapes and try and see if the background chirping gave away any information about his location. That didn't seem plausible to me at the time. But here I see that "German authorities thought they heard a bird chirping in one of Bin Laden's audiotapes this year, and brought in ornithologists to identify the species — and its habitat — according to reports in the German media" so it's at least fact-esque. More to the points, the LA Times article provides the first coverage I've seen on what seems like the obvious way to track OBL down:

Former CIA officials also said the agency had tried in vain to follow the trail of the tapes delivered to Al Jazeera and other outlets. But retracing the delivery route of the tapes has proved almost impossible, in large part because Al Qaeda is believed to use a series of secretive drops in Pakistan and elsewhere to thwart such efforts.
That doesn't really scan. Surely it's not impossible to ask questions of al-Jazeera tape-recipients or to conduct stakeouts of suspected drop locations. What kind of help is the Pakistani government giving us? Do we even know, say, who it is at the various media outlets who gets the tapes? Who do they get the tapes from? There's got to be more than "a series of secretive drops" standing in the way of this investigation.

December 28, 2004 | Permalink


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If you have enough guys isn't it virtually impossible to track something?

Guy 1) Take tape from Bin, drive to town, drop tape in locker at airport

Guy 2) Told there is a tape at airport. Pick up tape drop off at bus station

Guy 3) Told go to bus station. Pick up tape. Put in garbage can outside subway.

Guy 4) Told go get tape from garbage can and tape it under bench at city park.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

Guy 26) Works for TV station. Note is left on car telling him tape is in his mailbox or whatever.

Posted by: Sus_Ano | Dec 28, 2004 2:26:56 AM

"...so it's at least fact-esque."

I believe the word you're looking for is "fact-a-licious".

Posted by: Petey | Dec 28, 2004 2:28:54 AM

Forensic science, in my experience, often sounds a little goofy, precisely because it sometimes relies on extremely subtle clues.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Dec 28, 2004 2:51:51 AM

Conclusion: you're in DC and you don't read enough spy novels. Shame.

BTW, you're a pretty smart guy, you're young, no wife or kids, and a journalist. There is a war on terror on. How come you're not working for the CIA as an analyst/operative/....?

Seriously, dude.

(If it helps, many CIA operatives hate trees too, unless they are lining a river bank somewhere foreign across from a cafe or bar...)

Posted by: jerry | Dec 28, 2004 3:05:15 AM

"There is a war on terror on. How come you're not working for the CIA as an analyst/operative?"

If Matt were to go to work for Uncle Sam, which he probably shouldn't do, he'd be better off in Foggy Bottom than Langley.

And FWIW, there's always been a war going on, and always will be.

Posted by: Petey | Dec 28, 2004 3:09:45 AM

I don't think one needs sophisticated network to deliver these tapes. After all, they still can't find whoever sent those anthrax letters 3 years ago; and why would this be any easier?

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 28, 2004 4:41:01 AM

Alternative explanation: U-S intelligence knows where Osama Bin Laden is and they know how the tapes get from there to here. But they have reasons for "allowing" the tapes to surface as they are.

Posted by: slothrop | Dec 28, 2004 8:05:35 AM

You have a severe obsession with Pakistan. It is high time you get over it.

Posted by: Anonymous | Dec 28, 2004 8:38:54 AM

Matt, I believe they have, in fact, caught a fair number of couriers, but to little avail. It's been said (by B. Raman of the Asia Times) that they haven't caught any more of them is because they are current or former ISI members. Of course, Asia Times could well be just an Indian propaganda outlet.

Posted by: praktike | Dec 28, 2004 8:53:43 AM

"... rant about how the CIA had been reduced to bringing in ornithologists to listen to Osama bin Laden's tapes and try and see if the background chirping gave away any information about his location. That didn't seem plausible to me at the time. "

Why "reduced to"? It is a rational step. Humans are "vision prejudiced". We are overly dependent on sight. This reliance assures that Al Qaeda will not let anything visible slip through on any video. We don't notice sounds as much. The odds of a betraying sound slipping through on tape are hundreds of times greater than any visual evidence getting through.

Posted by: Njorl | Dec 28, 2004 9:42:22 AM

Matt, you are correct in having serious concerns, and devoting much time, to the problem of Pakistan.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 28, 2004 10:47:08 AM

Indeed, Mr. McManus. Here's the problem with Matt's theory: "What kind of help is the Pakistani government giving us?" The answer to that question may safely be assumed to be "none," except where proved otherwise in specific circumstances.

Posted by: Anderson | Dec 28, 2004 12:21:10 PM

Never mind the tapes, how does bin Forgotten keep his dialysis machine in working condition? Tracing that in that part of the world should not be impossible.

Posted by: Alice Marshall | Dec 28, 2004 12:38:35 PM

If we were actually spending our billions on producing intelligence operatives capable of infiltrating terrorist organizations -- rather than on a useless war in Iraq -- we might have a chance of apprehending a courier or finding OBL.

But that would be to mistake the War on Terror as a, um, War on Terror.

Posted by: ScrewyRabbit | Dec 28, 2004 12:44:45 PM

"how does bin Forgotten keep his dialysis machine in working condition?"

The new CW is that he does not have a kidney disease.

Posted by: praktike | Dec 28, 2004 12:49:46 PM

I think we haven't caught OBL because GWB doesn't want to catch him. Having caught the critter that attacked the WTC, how could GW justify a continued war on terror in Iraq? What would he use for the fear factor? A Shawnee, Sioux or Apache uprising? Would corporate welfare, run through the pentagon, slow? Hell, we had OBL in Afganistan and turned him loose. GWB doesn't want to catch OBL..at least not til the end of his second term.

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