Media

All Orange, All the Time

An urgent terror alert was based on information that is as much as three years old and largely based on public documents. Why are the media still playing Keystone Kops with the administration?
No 9/11 Commission is necessary; no Senate Intelligence Committee need be convened. On Sunday of this week, the Bush administration raised the terror alert level from Code Yellow to Code Orange for the sixth time since the system was created in March 2002. It claimed major American and global financial institutions in New York and Washington were in dire danger of attack; announced al-Qaeda arrests in Pakistan; spoke of captured "master" computer geniuses, the chilling discovery of the stored floor plans of the buildings in which those financial institutions are housed, and even counts of how many people passed certain key sidewalk spots in front of them per minute; ensured that New York City's heavily armed "Hercules Teams" would be sent into the streets, a key tunnel closed to commercial traffic, the guard-level on buildings raised precipitously; sent tremors through the nation; turned the TV news and the front pages of every major paper into a series of somber-voiced (or toned) security broadcasts; and loosed "terrorism experts" from think-tanks you never knew existed onto the airwaves to talk about breakthroughs in understanding al-Qaeda "tradecraft" and to debate solemnly whether it was better to release information about impending attacks, thus letting the enemy know you knew they knew you knew, or to keep the same information closer to the vest, lest we give away what we knew they didn't know we knew.

Without an investigative commission or Senate committee to back me up I was instantly preparing to issue a rarely proffered Tomdispatch Guarantee that something was sure to be amiss with this tale of terror in this, my next dispatch. But before I could write it – evidence perhaps that the domestic war on terror has entered the speeded-up realm in which Iraq has long existed ("Vietnam on crack cocaine") – a second (lesser) wave of news made it to the front pages of our imperial papers. By Tuesday, we were informed, as Dan Eggen and Dana Priest of the Washington Post put it on that paper's front page (Pre-9/11 Acts Led to Alerts) that "most of the al Qaeda surveillance of five financial institutions that led to a new terrorism alert Sunday was conducted before the Sept. 11, 2001." They also quoted "senior law enforcement officials" saying things like, "There is nothing right now that we're hearing that is new...Why did we go to this level? . . . I still don't know that."

Douglas Jehl and David Johnston chimed in the same day on the front-page of the New York Times (Reports That Led to Terror Alert Were Years Old, Officials Say) with the same information, adding in paragraph one, "[Intelligence and law enforcement officials] reported that they had not yet found concrete evidence that a terror plot or preparatory surveillance operations were still under way." The information, all reports now told us, was not only years old, but much of its "masterful" essence may have come from public records or off – gasp – the Internet or other "open sources." A Times editorial that day (Mr. Bush's Wrong Solution) suggested deep in its second paragraph as well as a bit circuitously and in the negative that there might even be a tad of political manipulation involved: "This news does nothing to bolster the confidence Americans need that the administration is not using intelligence for political gain."

The administration responded solemnly that, well, yes, the information was indeed old, but it had been updated recently! Wednesday, in a Glenn Kessler piece, labeled "analysis," in the Post this vital revelation had already been reduced to: "One piece of information on one building, which intelligence officials would not name, appears to have been updated in a computer file as recently as January 2004. But officials could not say whether that data resulted from active surveillance by al Qaeda or came from publicly available information."

The administration promptly responded that, as Jehl and Richard Stevenson reported on the front page of the Times Wednesday (New Qaeda Activity Is Said to Be Major Factor in Alert), the alert had been raised not just because of that old al-Qaeda information, but because a "separate stream of intelligence, which they had not previously disclosed, reached the White House only late last week and was part of a flow that the officials said had prompted them to act urgently in the last few days." (Given Bush environmental policies, one can only imagine how polluted this particular "stream" must have been.)

By the end of day four of the crisis, you could already find this mournful passage in the Kessler piece: "When Bush held his news conference, reporters knew only that the administration had recently uncovered this information. Bush 'would have faced more difficult questions' if reporters had known how much of the information had been obtained three years after the surveillance, Greenberger said."

If this weren't so serious, it would have the media quality of a Keystone Kops silent comedy. Unfortunately, our media is programmatically like some exceedingly slow, brain-damaged acquaintance. You have this constant urge to stretch out your hand and say, "Here, here, I'll help you along." But you also know that, massive and influential as it may be, on certain crucial matters it is institutionally incapable of learning. I mean, it's almost three years after 9/11 and we know we have an administration that never saw a piece of false intelligence it couldn't run with or accurate intelligence it couldn't mangle or suppress. Having just absorbed The 9/11 Commission Report and the Senate Intelligence Committee report, we also know that we have intelligence agencies that consider a 33% good-guess ratio great work.

This really should be a no-brainer. If you knew someone who was a congenital liar and who had told you something that wasn't so again and again... and then, one day, he told you it yet again, would you really extend him the benefit of the doubt? Would you really draw no negative conclusions? Would you really demand first the kind of smoking gun proof of lying that you know perfectly well will appear, whether on Day 3, 13, or 1,300?

If you're our imperial media, of course you would! On such matters, if the media is exceedingly slow, the Bush administration isn't. They know that first impressions count more than any retractions to follow. By last night, NBC Prime-time News was still leading off with "the tightest security" of our lifetime as its lead line, and ABC News was explaining, deep into its broadcast, that well, yes, administration spokesmen hadn't actually mentioned that a lot of the information was old... really old... not publicly... but they had done so in private media phone conferences, and anyway they were releasing news on seven additional potential al-Qaeda targets! You see, they hadn't released that information about the age of the information, because they didn't want to tip their hand to al-Qaeda. Ah yes, it all makes sense now. And not only that but ABC News informed us that their "sources" revealed the President to be "very angry," especially with that New York Times editorial mentioned above. As well he should be! And so it goes (as Kurt Vonnegut might say): The initial release of news taken at more than face value, the later predictable retractions overlaid with White House denials, the releases of new "information," general muddiness, and caution.

And, of course, most of any retraction probably doesn't make it through the news net to most Americans, most of whom don't read tomdispatch, don't check out Antiwar.com or CommonDreams.org, or Alternet.org, don't look for comments deep in New York Times' editorials three days after they've been blitzed by fear, or check out that key Washington Post "analysis" on day four which has all the caveats, doubts, and considerations. And you know what's the worst thing of all – for those of us who can draw conclusions from an avalanche of evidence and just normal everyday experience – when this happens again, as it surely will, in September or October, sometime certainly before November 2, and the police pour out for those fearsome front-page photo-ops, and the next al-Qaeda plot is revealed (before it's revealed to be some bogus combination of who knows what), the media reaction will be no different.

As one small remedy to this, I want to propose my own investigatory body – the 3-02 Commission (March 2002 being the moment when the Department of Homeland Security started up its yellow-to-orange, orange-to-yellow alerts). It's natural for us to investigate massive intelligence failures when, as with the 9/11 attacks, obvious catastrophe follows. But what about massive intelligence "failures" when nothing follows (except psychic harm to the American people and so to our already maimed body politic)? Since March 2002, Code Orange after Code Orange has poured out of this administration and nothing has happened. Isn't this, too, a massive intelligence failure, even if massively unnoted by the media? "Two years-plus of terror alerts – all wrong": Imagine that as a campaign slogan. Imagine for a second that there are indeed organized groups out there who actually wish us great harm – and our vast intelligence "community," with all its alerts, knows remarkably little about them.

Unfortunately, new thinking is in short supply in our well garrisoned world. We just get the same old, same old, but ever more of it, and our media responds like a Konrad Lorenz imprinted duckling. As the editor of the War in Context website wrote recently of the line of thinking we've been living with these last several years,
"Let's suppose that the next president decides he's going to launch an initiative to protect America from global warming. If the war on terrorism provides a paradigm, the solution should be obvious: As the icecaps melt, build an ocean barrier around every coastal city in America; focus public awareness on the effects but avoid talking about the causes; above all, reassure the nation that the only way to be safe is to be strong. Meanwhile, enjoy the beach but don't forget the sunscreen."
Unfortunately, old and limited thinking applies to more than just this administration. Toss in, for instance, the investigative bodies looking into this administration. The 9/11 Commission recently issued its 500-plus page report and its major suggestion (which the President just couldn't bring himself to embrace yesterday, but did a superb job of seeming to embrace) was the appointment of an intelligence "czar" – I always love the way such figures in our democracy are invariably called "czars" – to oversee the fifteen (count 'em 15) intelligence agencies that make up our vast intelligence complex. As former CIA analyst Ray McGovern pointed out recently, this was hardly a brilliant or bold, no less useful suggestion.

It evidently didn't cross the Commission's mind (or the Senate Intelligence Committee's either) to ask why we have at least 15 overlapping, often competitive intelligence agencies – wouldn't three already be a superfluity? – or whether it might not make simple, rational sense to "reorganize" not just congressional oversight of the intelligence community with its cumulative budget of $40 billion (considered a very low estimate actually), but the community itself? No, it seems that it's better, as McGovern says, just to plunk a new layer of bureaucracy on top of the old mess. Nor, it seems, did anyone go back into the history of American intelligence to ask what use it has actually been to us, historically speaking. But that's expecting a lot in the era of Orange Alerts.
Tom Engelhardt is editor of Tomdispatch.
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