Exploded Satellite Was To Track Osama Bin Laden

7:00 PM AUGUST 29, 1998


PAULA ZAHN: America's justification for a strike on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan two weeks ago is now being questioned by some experts. U.S. officials have revealed few details of the strike in retaliation for the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. But the New York Times reports some statements have proved to be inaccurate or misleading. Such as, the plant was apparently not a high-secret facility. The plant did produce commercial products, including medicine. And alleged terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden's financial role in the plant was apparently overstated. Still, U.S. officials say the target was the right one. And they say Bin Laden, the exiled Saudi millionaire, poses a direct threat to the U.S. Tracking his activities has not been easy. And Jim Stewart tells us, that effort recently met a major setback.

JIM STEWART: On the face of it, you'd think there was no connection between those August 7th explosions at two U.S. embassies in east Africa and this explosion one week later off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. But private intelligence analysts now believe that the spy satellite aboard that doomed Titan-4 missile was destined to listen in on the private conversations of Osama Bin Laden. The very man believed responsible for the African bombings.

JAMES BAMFORD [Satellite Intelligence Expert]: It would have given us a much better opportunity to eavesdrop on communications in that area of the world. Because that satellite was designed to be placed over Africa. And one of its target areas would have been the Middle East and Afghanistan.

STEWART: Analysts say Bin Laden, although he lived among Afghanistan's revolutionary leaders in a rugged country, was particularly vulnerable to such eavesdropping. He conducted much of his business using encrypted cell phones and fax machines over a private satellite channel. Just the sort of communications the new Mercury spy satellite, with it's football field-sized antenna, is designed to pick up.

JOHN PIKE [Satellite expert]: He can use couriers that can move money around in bales of $100 bills. But at the end of the day, they're going to have to use some modern communications technology, and we can track him when he does.

STEWART: Counter-terrorism experts at the C.I.A. and National Reconnaissance Office have been pouring over Bin Laden intercepts from older satellites ever since the World Trade Center bombing, when the arrest of the bomb maker in that case, Ramses Youseph, led them straight back to Bin Laden. The man who bankrolled the whole thing. All of which explains why finding Bin Laden and keeping up with his communications remains such a high priority. And why losing that billion-dollar spy satellite two and a half weeks ago off Florida is causing such a major headache for the U.S. intelligence community.

Jim Stewart, CBS News, Washington.