Sanders highlights press reporting on confidential material using debunked example

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday criticized the media for reporting on classified information, but in doing so cited an example that has been widely debunked.

Sanders was asked during Wednesday’s press briefing about the harassment CNN correspondent Jim Acosta faced  at President TrumpDonald John TrumpMulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus Former CBS News president: Most major cable news outlets 'unrelentingly liberal' in 'fear and loathing' of Trump An old man like me should be made more vulnerable to death by COVID-19 MORE’s rally in Tampa, Fla., on Tuesday night. She denounced violence of any sort but suggested the media should not report on certain sensitive subjects. 

“The president does think that the media holds a responsibility — we fully support a free press but there also comes a high level of responsibility with that,” Sanders said. 


“The media routinely reports on classified information and government secrets that put lives in danger and risk valuable national security tools,” she added.

She highlighted a report in the late 1990s that disclosed U.S. officials were able to listen in on Osama bin Laden’s satellite phone.

She blamed the press for alerting bin Laden to the tactic, saying he stopped using the phone and “the country lost valuable intelligence” as a result. 

However, as multiple reporters quickly noted on Twitter, the report Sanders referred to has been deemed an “urban myth.” Multiple factors likely played into bin Laden’s decision to ditch the satellite phone, and there were a number of press reports over the course of several years acknowledging his use of the device.

The Washington Post detailed the controversy surrounding the reporting in 2005. It noted that information on bin Laden’s use of a satellite phone to communicate with aides was reported as early as 1996. The source of that information was the Taliban, not a U.S. government leak.

A second report in 1997 on bin Laden’s use of the phone was sourced to the al Qaeda leader himself, the Post reported.

A Washington Times report on the satellite phone in August 1998 came one day after the U.S. launched missile strikes on al Qaeda training facilities, the Post reported. The Bush administration later blamed the Times's article for revealing sources and methods.

The Los Angeles Times was the first to report on Sept. 7, 1998, that the U.S. had intercepted bin Laden’s phone calls. The al Qaeda leader had likely already stopped using his phone at that time, according to the Post.

Sanders on Wednesday did not reference a specific article in the bin Laden case but used the decades-old example to take issue with the current media climate of reporting on otherwise secretive government programs and deliberations. 

"We certainly support a free press, we certainly condemn violence against anybody, but we also ask that people act responsibly," she said.

Her criticism echoed that of President Trump, who on Sunday called the press "unpatriotic" for reporting on government affairs.

"When the media - driven insane by their Trump Derangement Syndrome - reveals internal deliberations of our government, it truly puts the lives of many, not just journalists, at risk! Very unpatriotic!" Trump tweeted.

The Trump administration has had a tense relationship with the press, with the president frequently deriding media coverage he dislikes as "fake news" and encouraging his rally crowds to jeer reporters in attendance.