Terror Threat: The Calamity Is the Reporting

Early this year, the New York Times published a story entitled “Senators Warned of Terror Attack on U.S. by July.”

America’s top intelligence official told lawmakers on Tuesday [Feb. 2] that Al Qaeda and its affiliates had made it a high priority to attempt a large-scale attack on American soil within the next six months.

The assessment by Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, was much starker than his view last year, when he emphasized the considerable progress in the campaign to debilitate Al Qaeda and said that the global economic meltdown, rather than the prospect of a major terrorist attack, was the “primary near-term security concern of the United States.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Mr. Blair to assess the possibility of an attempted attack in the United States in the next three to six months.

He replied, “The priority is certain, I would say” — a response that was reaffirmed by the top officials of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I.

One can draw any number of conclusions from the fact that it is August, and no attack has materialized. I’m inclined to focus on the role of the Times and reporter Mark Mazzetti in misconstruing what officials said, while writing a technically accurate account of events.

Read again the blockquoted paragraphs: Officials told lawmakers that al Qaeda and its affiliates had made it a high priority to follow up on the failed attack of December 25th. Asked to assess the probability of attack, DNI Dennis Blair said: “The priority is certain”—whatever that means.

Intentions or priorities are quite distinct from capability, which is an essential prerequisite of committing any attack. Were intelligence officials obscuring this difference? Why didn’t any Senator challenge Blair’s evasive answer? Mark Mazzetti and the Times didn’t tell us.

Instead, the Times reported it as though it were a warning of terror attacks within six months. Mazzetti—a professional writer of English—didn’t investigate the flag Blair sent up with his contorted language.

In our book Terrorizing Ourselves, an excellent group of contributors analyze many different dimensions of the terrorism problem. In this case, I think we have an example of how different segments of our own society—intelligence officials, senators, a major newspaper, and a national security reporter at that newspaper—combined to maintain public fears in the aftermath of the Dec. 25th failed attack.