[UPDATED BELOW THE FOLD]
The Big Story yesterday and, to a lesser extent, today was the arrest of two legal Yemeni immigrants on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack. The pair, one of whom now resides in Birmingham, Alabama after previously living in Detroit, and the other of whom presumably resides in the Chicago area, were arrested in Amsterdam after having changed their itineraries in Chicago to direct flights rather than connecting flights through Washington-Dulles. As a result of the itinerary change, both men’s luggage wound up on the flight to Washington on which they were originally booked rather than the flight they actually took.
Most of the attention focused on the Birmingham traveler, Ahmed Mohamed Nasser al Soofi, whose itinerary began with a Birmingham to Chicago flight, and who was discovered to be carrying in his checked baggage a few cell phones taped together, a cell phone taped to a Pepto-Bismol bottle, and some knives. Again – this was his checked baggage, not his carry-on, and all of these items are perfectly legal and harmless to carry in checked baggage. Soofi was also carrying $7000 cash – also legal and harmless. The close inspection of Soofi’s luggage in Birmingham occured because a Birmingham TSA agent considered his “bulky clothing” suspicious.
After the luggage reached Washington, and it became apparent that the pair were not on the flight from Dulles to Amsterdam, their luggage was removed and closely inspected again. Air marshals were also placed on the Chicago to Amsterdam flight to make sure the pair did not attempt anything nefarious.
All this information was transmitted to the Dutch authorities, who arrested – but did not charge – the pair when their flight landed in Amsterdam on suspicion of plotting a terrorist attack. In particular, it seems that authorities were concerned that the taped-together cell phones and Pepto-Bismol were “mock bombs” and that the pair were doing a “dry run” for a terrorist attack.
To this point, I don’t have much of a complaint about how the matter was handled.
Where things went terribly wrong, however, was that unnamed, anonymous “U.S. law enforcement officials” proceeded to bring the media into this, with one unnamed “senior law enforcement official” stating “This was almost certainly a dry run, a test.” These same officials also specifically identified the individuals arrested, and incorrectly claimed that the two had actually been charged with “preparation of a terrorist attack.” Moreover, these officials falsely identified Soofi as still being from Detroit, making the fact that Soofi boarded in Birmingham rather than just starting his journey in much closer Chicago seem particularly suspicious. Shortly thereafter, the faces of these two men were being broadcast around the globe, with words like “terror probe” and “dry-run bomber” prominently displayed in connection therewith. Not surprisingly, right-wing bloggers and pundits seized on the story. For some, the proof was irrefutable that these men were terrorists – the men were, in this group’s minds, already convicted, despite the fact that there weren’t even any formal allegations against them yet, just the speculation of unnamed “senior government officials,” dutifully transcribed as fact by our Fourth Estate.
One problem, though: it’s increasingly apparent that these men have nothing to do with terrorism and were either entirely innocent or were, at worst (in the case of Soofi), just trying to bring some phones and money to friends and family in one of the world’s poorest countries. For starters, the very notion of a “dry run” for a terrorist attack is virtually unheard-of in the real world, regardless of how frequent they exist in the public’s imagination.* Moreover, it is now clear that the pair did not intend to change their itineraries in Chicago while sending their luggage to DC; instead, these men – who I presume do not speak English as their first language – appear to have simply missed their flights after the airline changed their gate at notoriously complicated O’Hare Airport. Indeed, the two men do not seem to have even known each other at all.
There is also a fairly obvious explanation for the fact that Soofi had taped the cell phones together: cell phones are relatively sensitive pieces of equipment, they are not exactly soft and well-cushioned, and the cargo hold of a plane is a pretty rough environment (to say nothing of the way in which baggage handlers throw luggage around).
It thus appears extraordinarily likely that the pair will be released by the Dutch authorities within the next day or so. But what happens when they return to the United States? Will the stories vindicating these two men receive the same amount of publicity as the stories accusing them? Doubtful – such stories never do. Even if the stories vindicating them did receive that kind of publicity, will everyone who has convicted them in their own minds accept the vindication? Ask Amanda Marcotte – and those were well-off, privileged, and intelligent white kids with good legal representation; the two men in this story are poor immigrants from a small and increasingly unpopular religious minority. What will happen if/when Soofi returns to his home in Birmingham and finds that some percentage of his neighbors – whether it be 5% or 50% – are absolutely convinced that he is a terrorist involved in actively planning to blow up an airplane?
I know I am stepping into Glenn Greenwald’s territory here, but the relationship between the media and “senior government officials” does an active disservice to our ability as a populace to understand the world around us, sacrificing truth for sensationalism and the political agenda of the “senior government official” in question. This is not to say that anonymous sourcing is necessarily bad – there are certainly plenty of instances where it is the only way to expose the truth to sunlight. However, in practice, anonymous sourcing all too often seems to mean the uncritical transcription of the source’s particular agenda as if it were verified fact. In this case, how difficult would it have been for the initial reporter to try to verify whether terrorists regularly conduct “dry runs” of the sort alleged here? How difficult would it have been to verify that Soofi was still a resident of Detroit before running with this story? How difficult would it have been to contact United Airlines to learn how these two men came to switch flights, knowing that it is a fairly normal for people to innocently miss flights? Indeed, given the way in which other government officials quickly (albeit anonymously themselves) sought to refute the narrative in the initial story, why wasn’t more of an effort made to at least discern whether the first officials’ narratives were universally held by investigators? For that matter, how difficult would it have been to verify right from the start whether these men had actually been charged with a crime, as represented by the “senior government officials” or had merely been arrested? That seems like it should be a pretty basic fact to verify if you are going to primarily rely on an anonymous source; at a bare minimum, “arrested on suspicion” or, as accurately, “detained for questioning” have much different connotations than “charged with.”**
What is particularly appalling about the uncritical transcription of narratives provided by “senior government officials” is that these officials are often presumably not career bureaucrats but rather political appointees. Their knowledge, particularly with respect to a breaking story, is often less likely to be direct than it is second-hand after having made its way up the chain of command. Even to the extent the “senior government official” is well-informed on the particulars of the story (which was obviously not the case here), that official may well lack the nuts and bolts experience or the first-hand context necessary to provide a reliable narrative.
Alas, “scoops” mean ratings, especially terrorism scoops. Anonymous “senior government officials” provide scoops, as those scoops will serve their preferred narrative. Publishing those scoops uncritically ensures continued access to the source and thus more scoops, while continuing to provide those scoops ensures that the source will continue to have an outlet for pushing his preferred narrative. Both parties to the exchange benefit; the truth does not. In this case, two seemingly innocent men will see their names, reputations, and quite possibly their lives, ruined as a consequence.
UPDATE: In comments, Jaybird correctly points out that the 9/11 hijackers undertook several “dry runs.” However, I think the “dry runs” Jaybird is referring to are very different from the type of “dry run” referred to above, and that was initially alleged to have occured in this case. Specifically, the source linked to above distinguishes between “rehearsing an attack” by “testing the terrain,” which he terms a “dry run,” and “painstaking, detail-obsessed planning in the shadows to increase their chances of success once they go into action — though that sort of sweating the small stuff usually helps set off vigilant antiterrorism agencies.” The actions of the 9/11 hijackers seem to have been primarily attempts to find out every last detail of airline security such as it existed at the time, whereas the type of “dry run” at issue here involved an alleged attempt to actually test the security system to see whether the system would catch something made to look like a bomb; if that test came back “yes, it will,” then the alleged terrorists get caught then and there.
*Yes, I know, the source for my claim here is also anonymous, so it should be taken with a huge grain of salt, but the article at least provides some specific background on the source that gives some basis to evaluate his credibility.
**For what it’s worth, and keeping in mind that I am opposed to libel laws as a matter of principle, these two men may well have a strong cause of action for libel and defamation, assuming they are cleared by the Dutch authorities. Unlike the Shirley Sherrod case, where Breitbart’s appalling allegations of “racism” were mere statements of opinion and his factual allegations were technically true even as they were unconscionably misleading, the false reports that these men were “charged” and that Soofi still resided in Detroit are blatantly false, as even a modicum of investigation would have demonstrated. These men are likewise not public figures, so there’s no need to show “actual malice.”