Yesterday, we reported on the curious disappearance of a WCBS report that military spy planes had been used to capture the Times Square bomber. Why was this story scrubbed? We have the answer. Sort of.
The original WCBStv.com article, "Army Intelligence Planes Led to Suspect's Arrest," by Marcia Kramer, read:
In the end, it was secret Army intelligence planes that did him in. Armed with his cell phone number, they circled the skies over the New York area, intercepting a call to Emirates Airlines reservations, before scrambling to catch him at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Then, a few minutes after we wrote about it, the article was rewritten with no mention of spy planes, and no indication it had been updated. Spooky! We asked WCBS what happened, and a spokesman responded:
The story that was broadcast by WCBS-TV did not include any mention of a military plane, although the station did have unconfirmed information about the use of a plane that we looked into but were unable to confirm. A line about the use of military aircraft was inadvertently included in the story that appeared on the station's Web site but was removed.
According to WCBS, they simply got caught up in the frenzy of breaking news and "inadvertently" put in an unconfirmed detail. There is a problem with this account: The detail about the Army intelligence planes was featured prominently in the title of the originally article. Clearly, the line wasn't "inadvertently included"—it was put in and deliberately promoted. After all, it was the most eye-catching detail of the story.
Since then, no other news organizations have reported that Army spy planes helped capture Faisal Shahzad. (Though few blogs speculated on the WCBS report, and its disappearance.) The New York Times reports that what ultimately led to Shahzad's capture was the crew of the Emirates flight he was on sending a passenger list to customs officials before takeoff. They discovered Shahzad had been put on a no-fly list as a result of the FBI's investigation. Authorities were then able to keep the plane from taking off and dragged Shahzad off it.
But that doesn't necessarily rule out the possibility that Army Special Ops—or their planes—were involved. The Nation points out the two guys running the investigation have deep backgrounds in secret Pentagon "Special Access Programs." (In certain cases dealing with terrorism and WMDs, military Special Ops forces are allowed to act on U.S. soil. See: PowerGeyser) At some point in their investigation, the FBI began following Shahzad, then lost him until he turned up on the Emirates passenger list. It's possible that the planes were used during this time to try to find him. Although the original WCBS account, that planes "intercepted a call to Emirates" doesn't fit with the New York Times' report that authorities didn't know Shahzad was on the flight until that last-minute customs cross-check.
So, why did WCBS scrub the intelligence planes detail?
Two possibilities: 1) They made the bad call to promote flimsy reporting, and when their story started getting picked up by blogs (Drudge also picked up their story) they realized it wouldn't be able to stand up to widespread scrutiny. So they quietly backed away. 2) They were very confident about the spy planes detail—which is why the put it in the headline—but someone made them remove it because it was super secret information. When the WCBS spokesperson emailed us, there was some sort of Jason Bourne-like character standing behind him with a silenced pistol softly telling him to, "Do what's best for your country..." Again, they quietly backed away.
Honestly, the first possibility is probably the likeliest. But the second possibility is way cooler. So, let's just say Jason Bourne caught Faisal Shahzad.
Update: Maybe it was actually a drone? Over at Pajamas Media, Annie Jacobs spoke with a retired NSA source, who told her this:
A retired National Security Agency (NSA) source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says signals intelligence was a key factor in catching Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
Working with the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force, NSA agents apparently tracked Shahzad's movements by locating signals from his cell phone, possibly via a drone.
Jacobs notes that a spy plane would violate the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which limits military operations on American soil. But a drone might not be covered; apparently, DHS and coastguard have in the past expressed interest in using drones in civilian operations.