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December 23, 2005
Notes from the Pentagon

Not broken
Retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan, the former Army chief of staff who runs the Association of the United States Army, has sent an e-mail to colleagues arguing against the position of Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat.

Mr. Murtha, as part of his argument for a quick troop withdrawal from Iraq, states that the U.S. Army "is broken."

Not so, said Gen. Sullivan, who has traveled around the globe and spoken with soldiers and their families.

"To suggest to our troops in harm's way their Army is broken strikes me as telling those on the firebase ... they are not going to do well," Gen. Sullivan wrote. "Unfortunately, the American public takes the statement at face value and I am concerned.

"After five decades of very personal involvement with the Army, 40 in uniform and 10 in close relationship, it seems to me that perhaps ... the Army is stretched as well as overcommitted, but there is no evidence to support an institutional breakdown. To the contrary I think it is remarkable ... that the leaders and soldiers of the Army have performed as magnificently as they have given the nature of the ongoing conflict.

"The Army is not broken. Talk with our troops and their families."

IED threat
We reported recently that terrorists and insurgents in Iraq are using various remote-control triggering devices. They include hard-wiring; infrared like those used in television remote controls; and radio-frequency devices, such as car door openers and garage door openers. An alert reader contacted us to note that another method being used by the terrorists is cell phones as an electrical triggering device.

The terrorists wire a cell phone to a block of explosives and then call the number when U.S. troops are in the area or a convoy passes by. The cell phone then sets off the bomb. In one case, luckily, the cell phone failed to go off. A Pentagon official sent us a photograph of one of the failed cell phone-detonated bombs. The screen on the Nokia phone displayed "01 Call Missed."

Sacred untruths
The Washington Times reported this week that it has been wrongly accused by the September 11 commission.

The commission's 2004 report singled out The Times for reporting in an Aug. 21, 1998, story that Osama bin Laden used a satellite phone from his hide-outs in Afghanistan and that the disclosure caused him to stop using it, depriving the United States of valuable intercepts.

We were a little late in correcting the record. The reporter who wrote the story was no longer at The Times. It just did not ring alarms bells inside the newsroom.

But then President Bush repeated the commission's complaint at a press conference on Monday, prompting stories in the New York Times and The Washington Post about The Washington Times story. Lee H. Hamilton, the commission's vice chairman, had gone a step further in a speech in October. He accused The Washington Times of reporting that the United States was tracking bin Laden through his satellite phone. (The story said no such thing.)

We did a computer search and found at least four news organizations had reported bin Laden's use of a satellite, or mobile, phone before The Times did. In fact, he used it to give interviews to the BBC and others. Yet, the commission report made no mention of those reports.

The urban legend about The Times and bin Laden's satellite phone appears to have been started by authors Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon. They worked on the National Security Council staff under President Clinton and have since become staunch Bush critics.

In 2002, they published a book, "The Age of Sacred Terror," that first accused The Times of disclosing the satellite phone in the Aug. 21 story. Apparently, they did not do a Nexis search, which would have produced previous reports on bin Laden's phone habits dating back to 1996.

Anyway, the Benjamin-Simon charge found its way into the September commission's report, as fact, two years later. A footnote to that paragraph cited three intelligence sources. We can only conclude that by 2003, when the commission was doing the interviews, The Washington Times and the satellite phone story had become urban legend even inside the all-knowing intelligence community.

Mr. Benjamin stayed on the attack this week, retelling his charge against The Times on the Slate Web site.

Mr. Benjamin told us in an e-mail that, "I am open to the possibility that The Washington Times article of August 21, 1998 recapitulated others' reporting and was not the result of a leak. I'm just surprised that no one said a word about this issue either to me or my co-author since we wrote this in "The Age of Sacred Terror," in 2002. ... I didn't do further research on this story because until this point, no one contradicted it."

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told us Mr. Bush was relying on the commission's report when he criticized The Washington Times this week.

Here's a plausible explanation for why bin Laden stopped using his satellite phone, and it has nothing to do with press reports: Aug. 21, 1998, is one day after the United States tried to kill him in a bombing strike on a terror camp in Afghanistan. For a terrorist, those kinds of near-death experiences can prompt a change in operating procedures.

Xiong still powerful
Chinese Gen. Xiong Guangkai, the deputy chief of the general staff and a key figure in Chinese military ties abroad, formally retired last week. We reported in February that Gen. Xiong was expected to step down.

He stayed in the powerful post a year longer than the mandatory retirement age of 65 for Chinese officials.

Gen. Xiong is best known for his threat to use nuclear weapons against the United States in an October 1995 conversation with former Pentagon official Charles Freeman. Gen. Xiong said at the time that China's nuclear forces were sufficient to deter the United States from intervening on the side of Taiwan in regional conflict over the island.

He bluntly told Mr. Freeman that the United States could no longer pressure China with the threat of using nuclear arms, as occurred during the Korean War, and then stated that "in the end, you care a lot more about Los Angeles than you do about Taipei."

The conversation was relayed by Mr. Freeman to then-National Security Adviser Anthony Lake during a meeting in January, and other U.S. officials said it was an implicit threat by Beijing.

Gen. Xiong will continue to be a powerful figure in the Chinese military and Communist Party system from his position as chairman of the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, a government think tank.

At a press conference in Beijing on Wednesday, Gen. Xiong said the United States was one of the nations that posed a "traditional security threat" to China, along with Japan, Russia and India, through its increases in defense spending and purchases of advanced arms.

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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