Combating confusion

August 15, 2004|By Paul Moore

OVER THE PAST two weeks, news stories about terror alerts, terror-related arrests and speculation about future terror attacks most likely created more confusion than clarity for readers. The coverage and presentation by The Sun and other media outlets often reflects the overlapping and contradictory nature of the material. It is as if chatter -- the intelligence service term for fluid background information -- has inhabited the news columns.

This period began Aug. 1 with news of the Bush administration raising the country's alert levels because of computer records, e-mail addresses and documents seized in the arrest of Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan in Pakistan. This material documented that al-Qaida had conducted surveillance of financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington. Then on Aug. 2, President Bush endorsed the creation of national intelligence director, a key recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission.

The next day, the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times reported that much of the Pakistan data was three to four years old. But U.S. officials continued to maintain that the material was no less relevant despite the time frame. On Aug. 4, The Sun published a front-page story describing gaps in what U.S. authorities knew about terrorist threats and America's dependence on foreign intelligence services. That same day, a three-paragraph article about the arrests of 13 people in Britain for "preparing `terrorist acts'" ran inside the newspaper.

By Aug. 6, developments in the Britain story were the top front-page story in The Sun. But with a headline, "British detain top operative in terror plot," it appeared to some readers that the arrests had just happened.

Next to that article, The Sun published a large photo to accompany the report, "Agents search homes of bioterror expert." In retrospect, the bioterror article had only modest news value. One reader said: "I have no idea what's going on with the news on this front page. Do these articles relate to each other and if so, what's the connection?" There was no connection, other than the inadvertent juxtaposition of the stories.

A front-page story in last Sunday's Sun on the National Security Agency director's efforts to change the technology and the culture of the huge eavesdropping agency was insightful. But Monday's front-page article, "Al-Qaida wants to outdo 9/11, U.S. says," was based primarily on homeland security adviser Francis Townsend's assessment that "a pre-election attack is `certainly their intent.'"

Reader Timothy Kjer was disappointed that the article failed to mention the news that Pakistani and British intelligence services believed that disclosing Mr. Khan's identity had imperiled their investigations.

It was Sun reporter Todd Richissin's Wednesday front-page article, "British frustrated by U.S. warnings," that finally provided detail and analysis about the effects of naming Mr. Khan (who had become a double agent) and how U.S. terror warnings and leaks forced British intelligence to curtail continuing operations after the 13 arrests. Mr. Kjer responded: "Thanks for this outstanding article. I hope it becomes widely read and discussed."

This story, coupled with a solid package on President Bush choosing Rep. Porter J. Goss to be the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was The Sun's most comprehensive and lucid report on terror-related matters in nearly two weeks. Mike Leary, the newspaper's national editor, acknowledges the difficulty in presenting a coherent view from disparate material. "It's history on the run, and sometimes it is confusing," Mr. Leary said.

It is essential that The Sun and other news organizations maintain a healthy skepticism about the terror material that is emerging and to be as thorough and consistent as possible in reporting and presenting it. "I hope that Sun reporters and editors will question motivations and sources as they cover these threat stories," said reader Bruce Jacobs of Baltimore.

As the Olympics in Athens move into high gear and the Republican National Convention looms at the end of August, expect more articles about terror alerts, terror-related arrests and terror prevention. I hope for clarity and coherence in these stories and that we will not have to cover real terrorist acts.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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