Traitors among us
The media can't win. If they tell the truth, they are traitors. If they lie, they are immoral. If they Disneyfy everything they are vapid and useless.
They Heard It All Here, And That's the Trouble
By Dennis Pluchinsky
Sunday, June 16, 2002; Page B03
I accuse the media in the United States of treason.
I have been analyzing terrorism for the U.S. government for 25 years. My specialty is "threat analysis." This is a rather difficult field that requires the imagination of Walt Disney, the patience of a kindergarten teacher, the mind-set of a chess player, the resolve of a Boston Red Sox fan, the mental acuity of a river boat gambler, and the forecasting ability of a successful stock market analyst.
While the media have, over the past several weeks, written extensively on alleged intelligence "failures" surrounding the events of Sept. 11, I want to address the media's common-sense "failures." As a terrorism analyst, I am both appalled and confused by many of the post-9/11 articles published at home and abroad, in newspapers, news magazines and academic journals, as well as on the Internet.
Many of these articles have clearly identified for terrorist groups the country's vulnerabilities -- including our food supply, electrical grids, chemical plants, trucking industry, ports, borders, airports, special events and cruise ships. Some of these articles have been lengthy and have provided tactical details useful to terrorist groups. No terrorist group that I am aware of has the time and manpower to conduct this type of extensive research on a multitude of potential targets. Our news media, and certain think tankers and academicians, have done and continue to do the target vulnerability research for them.
Imagine that you are a supporter or sympathizer of a terrorist group and you have been tasked to identify and collect tactical information on potential U.S. targets. Consider some of the following headlines that have appeared since 9/11: "Private Plane Charters: One Way Around Air Security," "Suicidal Nuclear Threat Is Seen At Weapons Plants," "Priority Required for Protecting Utilities," "NRC Warns of Missing Radioactive Materials," "Freight Transport: Safe from Terror?" "Chemical Plants Are Feared As Targets," "America's Roads May Be Just As Vulnerable As Its Skies," "Study Assesses Risk of Attack on Chemical Plants," "Terror Risk Cited for Cargo Carried on Passenger Jets: 2 Reports List Security Gaps," and "Truck Terrorism Possible, U.S. Says: Investigation Finds Lack of Licensing Safeguards."
I do not understand the media's agenda here. This country is at war. Do you honestly believe that such stories and headlines, pointing out our vulnerabilities for Japanese and Nazi saboteurs and fifth columnists, would have been published during World War II? Terrorists gather targeting information from open sources and field surveillance. What other sources do they have? Do they have a multibillion-dollar intelligence community with thousands of employees? Do they have telecommunications satellites to intercept communications?
If there's one thing terrorists have been open about, it's their reliance on open information. In the mid-1980s there was a Belgian left-wing terrorist group called the Communist Combatant Cells, or CCC. At the time, it was carrying out a series of bombings against American targets in Belgium. The media there were speculating that the CCC had plants or spies inside various Belgian agencies to be able to carry out attacks so efficiently. "NATO Pipelines Sabotaged: Military Secrets in the Hands of the CCC?" read a headline in the Dec. 12, 1984, edition of the Belgian newspaper Le Soir. Finally, in a written communique disseminated in April 1985, the CCC explained how it acquired its targeting information. The communique stated: "Being methodical types and having considered the relative accessibility of the pipeline, we consulted the top-secret telephone book where, under 'Ministry of Defense,' every pumping station in the entire country is listed. We drew up our lists of all the towns these stations were located in, and decided to explore them during long walks in the countryside."
Terrorist groups continue to rely on open sources to come up with targeting ideas and tactical information. This is why the Internet has become so valuable to terrorist groups. Richard Clarke, head of the White House's Office of Cyberdefenses and probably the most knowledgeable high-level government official on terrorism, testified to Congress on Feb. 13 that, based on evidence found in the caves of Afghanistan, al Qaeda "was using the Internet to do at least reconnaissance of American utilities and American facilities." Furthermore, he noted, "if you put all the unclassified information together, sometimes it adds up to something that ought to be classified."
So why do the research for the terrorists? For example, "vulnerability" articles appearing in the media always contain interviews or comments from three or four experts or specialists. It could be the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an American Trucking Associations official, a union leader, technician or consultant. These experts will talk to reporters. None of them would ever talk to a terrorist. Therefore, if not for the media, terrorist groups would have no access to the insights and wisdom of these people. What also infuriates me is when the media publish follow-up reports noting that security measures or procedures around a specific target or system still have not been implemented. Not only do the media identify potential target vulnerabilities for the terrorists but they also provide our foes with progress reports!
In a war situation, it is not business as usual. Use some common sense. Certainly, if a reporter or academician believes that he or she has discovered a vulnerability or flaw in one of our sectors or systems, it is important to let others know. It seems reasonable to me that a process should be established where such articles are filtered through a government agency such as the proposed Department of Homeland Security. A skeptic would call this censorship; a patriot would call it cooperation. This type of cooperation existed during World War II and believe me, this current war is a "world war" also.
I also am concerned about the many articles detailing how the 9/11 terrorists were able to come and live in the United States. These articles have noted which mannerisms of the terrorists aroused the suspicion of their landlords, acquaintances, neighbors, flight instructors and others. Articles have pointed out what mistakes the terrorists made and how we failed to pick up on those mistakes. Al Qaeda terrorists now know to pay a speeding ticket promptly. They now know not to pay for things with large amounts of cash. They now know to buy some furniture for their apartments or rooms. They now know that they have to act friendly and not surly or antagonistic in their dealings with neighbors and other locals. They know now that they should have a phone installed in their apartments or rooms.
The U.S. media's autopsy of the movements and interactions of earlier terrorists may have helped the 9/11 hijackers and others seeking to come to the United States to do us harm. In a March 23 article entitled "The Jackals of Islam" that was published on an Islamic Web site, Abu-Ubayd al-Qurashi, believed to be a close aide to Osama bin Ladin, commenting on the 9/11 operatives, stated that "the suicide hijackers studied the lives of Palestinian Yehiya Ayash [a Hamas bomb maker who was himself assassinated] and Ramzi Yousef [operational planner of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing] and the security mistakes that led to their downfall while they were preparing for the September 11 operation." How did al Qaeda know about the security mistakes that led to the death of Ayash and the capture of Yousef? The media, at home and abroad.
Courtrooms can also give terrorists windows into our thinking and methods. In the 1980s when German terrorists from the leftist Red Army Faction (RAF) were tried in Germany, the prosecution had to detail all of the evidence, including how they linked the terrorists to specific attacks. Forensic experts from the German BKA (comparable to the FBI) described in the open courtroom how they extracted fingerprints from items left at the attack sites. At the time, there were RAF sympathizers and supporters in the courtroom who took notes. It did not take long for the RAF terrorists still at large to change their methods -- wearing gloves and spraying their hands with latex so that they would not leave any fingerprints.
The U.S. media are providing a similar service for al Qaeda. I am sure that al Qaeda will fix its mistakes and mannerisms before its next attack in the United States. I say the following with a heavy heart, but if there were an "Osama bin Laden" award given out by al Qaeda, I believe that it would be awarded to the U.S news media for their investigative reporting. This type of reporting -- carrying specifics about U.S. vulnerabilities -- must be stopped or censored.
I propose that the Department of Homeland Security establish a program where academicians, reporters, think tankers or any citizen could contact the department and inform them of security vulnerabilities. If the department determined that these vulnerabilities indeed existed, then it could award "Homeland Security Protective Security" certificates to individuals or "Homeland Security Gold Stars" to newspaper or Internet sites that put the country first during a time of war. If displayed on its banner, this star might increase circulation.
During World War II, there was a security slogan thatwent: "Loose lips sinks ships." Maybe the current security slogan should be: "Prolific pens propagate terrorist plots." The president and Congress should pass laws temporarily restricting the media from publishing any security information that can be used by our enemies.This was necessary during World War II, it is necessary now. These restrictions were backed by the American public during World War II, and I believe the public would support them now.
As for "treason," well, maybe that accusation against the media is not justified. Webster's dictionary defines treason as violation of allegiance toward one's country and lists one of its characteristics as "consciously and purposely acting to aid its enemies." I know the media have not consciously and purposely aided al Qaeda. Therefore, J'accuse the media of lacking common sense. As a concerned terrorism analyst, I say the following to the media: You are making the jobs of terrorism analysts, intelligence officers and law enforcement officials very difficult. Help us, don't hinder us from defeating our enemies.
Dennis Pluchinsky is a senior intelligence analyst with the Diplomatic Security Service in the U.S. Department of State. His opinions are personal ones and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the State Department or any other branch of the U.S. government.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company
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