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Al-Qaida Conference Call? It Wasn't On Phone, Reporters Say

One of this week's most-talked-about stories is The Daily Beast's report 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."

Reporters Eli Lake and Josh Rogin wrote that they got that information from "three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence." They added that "one U.S. intelligence official [said] more than 20 al Qaeda operatives were on the call."

Other news outlets, including NPR, weren't able to match that story. Quite the opposite, in fact. Stories about the Daily Beast scoop focused on how incredibly unlikely it seemed that 20 al-Qaida operatives would be communicating that way — given the likelihood that they would be listened in on.

As The Christian Science Monitor wrote

"The claim flies in the face of every assumption and informed opinion about Al Qaeda's operational security that there is. That many people, on a call all at once, would appear to dramatically increase the exposure of all of them — as would the simple logistics of setting up a calling time for all those people to be on the phone."

Well, now Lake and Rogin are saying it wasn't the kind of conference call that the simple two-word phrase "conference call" makes anyone who reads the story think about.

"It was a conference call, but not over a telephone line," Lake tweets. "We left out some details at the request of sources."

"It was not a phone call," Rogin told CNN's Anderson Cooper. Instead, the al-Qaida operatives supposedly gathered in some sort of "virtual meeting space. ... We're not saying whether it was ... a video or an Internet or voice or data or whatever. ... It was not a phone call. This was an environment that al-Qaida's leadership set up that other people could plug into."

On the phone or not, the idea of any such group of al-Qaida leaders gathering, virtually or not, is "just so counter-intuitive to the operational security of al-Qaida," Bush-era national security adviser Fran Townsend told Cooper when she heard Rogin say all that.

As far-fetched as the idea of 20 al-Qaida operatives getting on a conference call sounded (and yes, we mean one on the phone), it was fodder for some good satire.

Check out New York magazine's "transcript of Al Qaeda's worldwide conference call."

Note: Yes, we know that al-Qaida is written three different ways in this one post. News organizations have different styles for how to write the terrorist network's name. We didn't alter those other organizations' spellings when we quoted from their reports.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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