LOS ANGELES, March 19 (UPI) -- Ensconced at an undisclosed location in the lonely wooded mountains of West Virginia, the BlackNet has been abuzz in recent weeks as the United States prepares for the moment of truth in the Persian Gulf.
The pending invasion of Iraq and the possibility that it will bring new terrorist attacks to the United States has stoked the level of chatter on the Internet mailing list that has become a "must-have" for government officials, investigative reporters and world affairs scholars in the netherworld of international spooks.
"The consensus is that (Iraqi leader) Saddam (Hussein) is an eternal optimist," said Scott Malone, moderator and founder of the Web site dubbed "BlackNet," which was originally launched in Arlington, Va., in the immediate wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, suicide attack on the nearby Pentagon. "And (President) Bush is going to do exactly what he wants."
Saddam's optimism is likely fading with American and British troops expected to be moving in on his dug-in military at any moment, but the imminent showdown has been the primary topic of discussion for months among the members of BlackNet who share a professional interest in the shadowy world of international terrorism.
"We picked up some Israeli chatter last week," Malone told United Press International on Monday in a telephone interview.
"It was some amateur radio buffs who were monitoring some U.S. fighter pilots who said the invasion was going to be on Tuesday."
The chatter appeared to have been off by a day, but it's the kind of fodder that makes BlackNet a font of tidbits and a plethora of analyses that go out to the membership list of roughly 100 in real time and uncensored and unfiltered by officials, editors and spokesmen.
"It's an interesting group," said Morgan Clements, a member of the list and publisher of the Web site TerroristWarning.com.
"They have a curious and uncanny awareness of things which are not always publicly available and are clearly a group of knowledgeable individuals working toward a common goal behind the scenes without getting or expecting credit for the information they provide."
Malone, a multiple Emmy and Peabody award-winning investigative reporter who chronicled Middle East intrigue and the Branch Davidian siege at Waco, Texas, for the Public Broadcasting Corp. series "Frontline," says he limited BlackNet's membership to others who work in the field of intelligence gathering or homeland security, or those in ancillary fields such as public healthcare and cyber-security.
The members are all assigned a code number that keeps them both anonymous and protected against both repercussions from their bosses and static from Web surfers who have little to offer to the discussion other than a political ax to grind.
"It's like belonging to a secret club," he joked.
"The cachet of BlackNet is that you are part of a team; it's a cooperative of online investigations," Malone said. "I began this site to sell it to security firms, but then changed my mind. If it were to go public, we wouldn't be the same thing."
BlackNet's steady stream of news items and instant analysis ranges from hit tips from the Pentagon, Kremlin and Pakistan to reports of menacing military aircraft in the skies around Washington that are no doubt on official business.
The network's favorite investigative reporters and columnists are regularly posted, including UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave and Jim Hoagland of The Washington Post.
Members both comment on items posted by Malone and contribute their own scoops on topics that include Iraq and suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, as well as homegrown bioterrorism and the hunt for the Beltway snipers.
Malone boasted that BlackNet scooped the mainstream media by a week when a member named Richard M. Smith made inquiries to facial-recognition and biometric companies and was able to confirm the identity of a Pakistani arrest photo of al-Qaida commander Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.
Smith e-mailed the FBI's wanted poster photo of the suspect to several biometric companies and asked them to compare it to the now-famous arrest photo of the disheveled sleepy man that had some Pakistani media questioning whether or not the correct man had been arrested.
"The BlackNet posted a story by one of its members (Smith) who had made the Internet inquiries," Malone said. "One week later, The New York Times did a story about it, using the same biometric company that BlackNet member Smith had used."
Reports are corroborated as far as possible, but the attraction to BlackNet is the raw intelligence that members want to digest before it hits the evening news regardless of how it pans out in the long run.
"It's witty and sometimes even funny," observed member Roger Twinning. "It's a strange, overly informed and timely mutant (newswire)."
Being described as a "mutant" might not seem like high praise, but the White House said after Sept. 11 that the war on terrorism would sometimes be carried on outside the view of the mainstream media, and that might give the myriad BlackNet members a leg up on everyone else.
Malone said: "It's a cooperative of online investigations. The BlackNet members are mostly hawks -- but the point is that I have left-wingers, right-wingers, hawks and doves as members; I have Jewish radicals and Islamic fundamentalists as members."
Information about BlackNet is available on the Internet at home.earthlink.net/wsmfiles.