Terrorism and the media

July 28, 2004|By Cal Thomas

BOSTON - Among the responsibilities a free press should meet is alerting people to danger. It has done so in matters pertaining to disease and diet, but it failed to sufficiently warn the public of the growing terrorist threat in the years leading up to Sept. 11, 2001.

In its well-written report, the 9/11 commission noted that it had become "conventional wisdom" prior to 9/11 that terrorism was not as big a threat to Americans as it would soon prove to be. As one example, it cites an April 1999 New York Times story that "sought to debunk claims that [Osama] bin Laden was a terrorist leader."

The commission notes that terrorism was not a central issue in the 2000 presidential campaign, mostly because "the media called little attention to it."

In a July 22 story for Editor and Publisher magazine, Charles Geraci writes, "The commission also offered an interesting media-related insight regarding pressures on the CIA. In its evaluation of the intelligence agency, the commission reports that starting in the 1990s, the CIA found it had to move more quickly in response to, and then reflecting, `the culture of the newsroom. During the 1990s, the rise of around-the-clock news shows and the Internet reinforced pressure on analysts to pass along fresh reports to policy-makers at an even-faster pace, trying to add context or supplement what their customers were receiving from the media.' This led to weaknesses `in all-source and strategic analysis.'"

Leaks to the media also hurt intelligence-gathering, according to the commission report. The commission said that after a leak to The Washington Times in 1998, al-Qaida's senior leadership ceased a particular form of communication, making it more difficult to intercept bin Laden's conversations.

That's the past. What about future threats? According to journalist and author Paul Williams in his new book, Osama's Revenge: The Next 9/11, bin Laden associates could possess suitcase nuclear bombs capable of killing millions of Americans and exposing millions more to deadly radioactive fallout. While the media have reported on some of this, they have not "put all the pieces together," as Mr. Williams attempts to do in his book. He says bin Laden's associates are only waiting "for the right opportunity to launch an apocalyptic attack."

There are at least two reasons behind media reluctance to devote better coverage to this story.

One is money. The networks and many newspapers have either closed foreign bureaus or cover little foreign news.

The second reason is political correctness. Extremist infiltrators call anyone who sounds a warning about what they're up to "Islamophobes" and demand, through mass e-mailings and sometimes demonstrations, the censoring or sanctioning of journalists who sound the alarm.

It was political correctness that led Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta, just days after 9/11, to institute a suicidal policy that bans profiling of air passengers based on race.

Now, according to Audrey Hudson of The Washington Times, "Flight crews and air marshals say Middle Eastern men are staking out airports, probing security measures and conducting test runs aboard airplanes for a terrorist attack."

Annie Jacobson, a writer for Women's Wall Street Journal, described a chilling experience on a recent flight from Detroit to Los Angeles during which she said 14 Middle Eastern men behaved strangely and frightened the crew and passengers.

Our borders are sieves. Our normally commendable attitude of tolerance and the welcome mat we have put out to the world have allowed people who love America as well as those who hate us to come in.

The Arab TV network Al-Jazeera, which might properly be renamed the "Voice of bin Laden," has been given a booth at the Democratic Convention to broadcast its version of events to the Arab world.

The Arab press understands that the media are an important weapon in the clash between civilizations, and so do others who hate us. Why doesn't the U.S. press? Perhaps they're too busy covering Martha Stewart and other stories that satisfy sponsors interested in certain demographics. In doing so, the big media are again ignoring their responsibility to sound an alarm.

Clarification

My column last week, based on an interview with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, left a mistaken impression in some minds regarding President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. Here's a transcript of what Mr. Rumsfeld actually said:

"I think that there is no question but that the declaration that was submitted to the United Nations by Saddam Hussein was flawed, was inaccurate, was false and that the United Nations had gone through some 17 resolutions and that it was appropriate to enforce those resolutions as the coalition did. So I believe the president did the right thing."

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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