Washington — Suspicious that Osama bin Laden is using American television to send coded messages, the White House asked networks Wednesday to think twice before airing his terrorist organization's videotaped messages.
"At best, this is a forum for prerecorded, pretaped propaganda inciting people to kill Americans," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said.
At worst, the broadcasts could contain signals to "sleeper" agents, he added. "The concern here is not allowing terrorists to receive what might be a message from Osama bin Laden calling on them to take any actions."
Following a conference call with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and Fox agreed they would not broadcast transmissions from bin Laden's al-Qaida group without first screening and possibly editing them.
In a statement that echoed those of its counterparts, Fox News said: "We believe a free press must and can bear responsibility not to be used by those who want to destroy America and endanger the lives of its citizens."
One day earlier, CNN and NBC's cable network aired unedited a tape of al-Qaida spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith praising the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States and warning there would be more. That message, like one from bin Laden just after U.S. military attacks began Sunday in Afghanistan, was picked up from Al-Jazeera television, the only station now broadcasting from within Afghanistan.
The target of a high-tech global manhunt, bin Laden cannot simply pick up the phone to activate his network and it is logical to expect he might embed instructions in taped public messages, Fleischer said.
CIA raises issue
An administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said CIA analysts studying the broadcasts detected nothing specific but made a compelling enough argument about the risk of coded messages that the administration rushed to put President Bush's highest ranking national security official on the phone to TV executives.
The suspicion is based on hunch and common sense, a second administration official said, because bin Laden's language is filled with flowery, fuzzy images.
A third official noted that bin Laden and his spokesman both wore white turbans, the Muslims' traditional color of martyrdom, in the two tapes aired since U.S. military attacks began. Bin Laden also wore combat fatigues.
"He wears a camouflage jacket to signify he's at war. There's nothing obscure about it," said retired CIA counterterrorism expert Vincent Cannistraro. "He wore that jacket when ABC interviewed him in 1998 and two months later the bombings in the east African embassies took place."
There is historical precedent in the West.
During World War II, for example, resistance forces inside Nazi-occupied France knew to listen for coded phrases in the speeches of Winston Churchill broadcast over the BBC.
At the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a news-media watchdog group, Matthew Felling called the administration's request "a silky form of censorship ... uncomfortable but understandable."
"Because bin Laden is resourceful, he would use our cultural tools as weapons, be they airplanes or airwaves," said Felling, the center's media director.
Ibrahim Hilal, chief editor of Al-Jazeera, scoffed at the notion of hidden signals and said the terrorists were sophisticated enough to communicate with each other directly. "I don't think the United States, who taught the world about freedom of expression, should now begin to limit it," Hilal said in an interview.
The warning about al-Qaida broadcasts was the latest in a series of White House efforts to limit the flow of information about its war against the terrorists and the Afghan Taliban militia that shelters them.
Bush, angry about leaks to reporters last week, abruptly shut down classified briefings to all but eight members of Congress. He backed off on Wednesday, after Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., reminded the president that the State Department is required by law to keep House and Senate committees on foreign relations "fully and currently informed."
Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, emir of Qatar where Al-Jazeera is based, said last week when he was in Washington that Secretary of State Colin Powell complained to him about Al-Jazeera's repeated airing of bin Laden footage. The State Department also tried to block the government-funded Voice of America radio station from airing an interview with a Taliban official.
And last month, Fleischer publicly scolded the host of TV's "Politically Incorrect" talk show for controversial comments on the terrorist attacks and admonished all Americans "to watch what they say."