Are the Osama Tapes Fake?
Late in December 2007, The Associated Press reporter Salah Nasrawi wrote a story about a Bin Laden audiotape that had just been released. Headlined “Bin Laden Threatens Israel, Warns Iraqis,” Nasrawi’s piece details Osama’s dire threats to expand al Qaeda’s jihad in Israel and to “liberate Palestine, the whole of Palestine from the (Jordan) river to the sea,” threatening “blood for blood, destruction for destruction.”
Then, 11 paragraphs down, Nasrawi writes: “The authenticity of the tape could not be independently confirmed. But the voice resembled that of bin Laden. The tape was posted on an Islamic militant Web site where al-Qaida’s media arm, Al-Sahab, issues the group’s messages.”
If the tape can’t be vetted, it shouldn’t be used. That’s Journalism 101. At the very least, the fact that it can’t be authenticated should be mentioned in the story’s title and continuously mentioned throughout the story as the quotes are being used. Worse, all the mainstream TV outlets picked up on Nasrawi’s story and liberally quoted “bin Laden” without bothering to use the word “purported” or another adjective indicating they had no proof it was Bin Laden on the tape. Collectively, what these journalists are doing is worse than outright lying to the public. They are literally helping dangerous people with deadly hidden agendas create a virtual reality by unquestioningly conveying their messages.
Nasrawi didn’t just bury the authentication problem in his story. He also referred to earlier, equally questionable “bin Laden” communiqués. “The tape was the fifth message released by bin Laden this year, a flurry of activity after he went more than a year without issuing any tapes. The messages began with a Sept. 8 video that showed bin Laden for the first time in nearly three years. The other messages this year have been audiotapes.”
Reporting on unauthenticated bin Laden tapes as if they were real is, shamefully, getting to be an old practice. In November 2002, a “bin Laden” audiotape surfaced and a senior State Department official explained to CNN that the voice on the tape was indeed Bin Laden’s, but that “we don’t know yet whether anybody put it together, spliced or computer-generated it.”
Just how could “anybody” computer-generate bin Laden’s voice and create an entire bogus statement?
On February 1, 1999, William Arkin, writing for washingtonpost.com, described a voice-morphing technology that government scientists at Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico had developed.
“By taking just a 10-minute digital recording of Steiner’s [Gen. Carl W. Steiner, former Commander-in-chief, U.S. Special Operations] voice, scientist George Papcun is able, in near real time, to clone speech patterns and develop an accurate facsimile,” Arkin wrote. “To refine their method, they took various high quality recordings of generals and experimented with creating fake statements. One of the most memorable is Colin Powell stating, “I am being treated well by my captors.”
Arkin also indicated that morphing was not limited to audio, and could be used for some very interesting and disturbing purposes: “Digital morphing — voice, video, and photo — has come of age, available for use in psychological operations. PSYOPS, as the military calls it, seek to exploit human vulnerabilities in enemy governments, militaries and populations to pursue national and battlefield objectives.”
Arkin’s article inspired me to dig a little more into the bin Laden tapes.
I decided to compare this video of Osama that al Jazeera released on December 27, 2001 with other Bin Laden videos. The December 27 video is not dated, but it provides an up-close, in-focus look at the guy we all recognize as Osama from many previous photos. Now (dear reader, you’re going to have to do a little work here), compare that to a tape that the U.S. government released on December 13, 2001 [see CNN footage in “Loose Change” documentary at 1:14:25 into the program]. The tape, ostensibly shot on November 9, 2001, is of very poor quality — dark and out of focus with fuzzy audio. One can’t positively ID the man who is supposed to be Osama in this tape. And curiously, this alleged bin Laden is seen writing with his right hand. According to the FBI, bin Laden is left-handed.
In the November 9 tape, the purported bin Laden says things such as, “We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower,” and “Due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for.” He also says that, “Mohammed Atta was in charge of the group.”
When the U.S. State Department released the tape, one BBC reporter prudently used quotation marks in this headline, “Tape ‘proves bin Laden’s Guilt’,” before quoting President Bush and then-British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw saying that the tape was proof of Osama’s guilt. “But the BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Frank Gardner,” adds the BBC reporter, “says that at street level in the Arab world, many believe the tape is a fake, a PR gimmick dreamed up by the US administration. And the defence minister of the ousted Taleban [sic] regime in Afghanistan told the BBC that he was doubtful about its authenticity, saying it was unlikely that Bin Laden would have been naïve enough to say such things on a recording.”
It is hard to imagine a mainstream American TV reporter calling a former Taliban defense minister for a comment on anything. Yet running to President Bush for the truth hasn’t always worked out for certain high-profile journalists either.
Unlike the BBC, CNN expressed no doubts about the December 27 tape’s authenticity: “Osama bin Laden recounts with delight the September 11 terrorist attacks against the United States as he talks with associates on a videotape released Thursday by the Bush administration.” And further down, this: “The Bush administration hopes the tape will convince skeptics, particularly in the Muslim and Arab worlds, of Bin Laden’s complicity in the attacks.”
A few months earlier — six days after 9/11 to be exact — CNN reported that Bin Laden had sent a statement to Al Jazeera denying that he had been involved: “The U.S. government has consistently blamed me for being behind every occasion its enemies attack it… I would like to assure the world that I did not plan the recent attacks, which seems to have been planned by people for personal reasons.” [September 17, 2001].
The FBI says it has no hard evidence that Bin Laden participated in 9/11. That’s what the FBI’s Rex Tomb told Muckraker Report’s Ed Haas. The FBI doesn’t want Osama for 9/11. They want him in connection with the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, which killed more than two hundred people.
Turning back to those tapes one last time, there are other troublesome videos, including two mentioned in an October 29, 2007 MSNBC story, “Was Bin Laden’s Last Video Faked?”. The story has to do with two videos, one released on September 7, 2007 and another released about three years earlier on October 29, 2004. Oddly, the man in both (fuzzy, of course) tapes looks exactly the same — sitting in front of the same background and wearing the same clothes–except that in the later one, the purported Osama’s beard appears younger with a beard that seems to have been dyed black. Experts are asked for their opinions and they can’t say for sure what exactly is up with the tapes. Then the requisite “senior US intelligence officer” is asked the requisite question about the October 2007 tape’s authenticity and the officer gives the requisite response, saying he “believes” the tape is new, but he can’t discuss why. Another “even more senior intelligence officer” says he doesn’t think the black beard in the new tape is fake, but again, he won’t say why. I think it’s time reporters stop giving passes to sources such as these. If they can’t back up their statements, don’t quote them. The secrecy and lack of transparency everywhere in government have reached absurd levels and journalists should fight both hard at every turn. In this case, find other, better sources that are willing to talk. They exist.
MSNBC does get points for raising the question. But excellent journalism would involve pursuing the matter until definitive answers on the provenance and authenticity of the tapes were found.
These details boil down to two things. One, all the unauthenticated audiotapes and fuzzy videos look and sound suspicious. Two, there hasn’t been any clear, up-close, “look at me, I’m alive” videos of Bin Laden for years. The journalism community would do well to wonder why — and then move forward aggressively from there. The American public needs to know what’s going on here.
And while they’re at it, America’s journalists should take a good hard look at Mr. Gadahn and his recent tape encouraging al Qaeda sympathizers to greet President Bush in the Middle East with “bombs and booby-trapped vehicles.” Mr. Gadahn’s real name is Adam Pearlman and he’s a young Jewish man from California. Frankly, I’m not buying Pearlman’s shtick or his videotapes.
Pearlman is straight out of central casting with the usual sketchy background for characters who aren’t what they purport to be. He should be investigated very, very closely, as should the provenance of his tapes.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Kristina Borjesson is an investigative reporter and the author of FEET TO THE FIRE, The Media After 9/11: Top Journalists Speak Out.