The Irresponsible Media Who Ruin Lives and the Unnamed “Senior Officials” Who Enable Them

[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.”

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34 thoughts on “The Irresponsible Media Who Ruin Lives and the Unnamed “Senior Officials” Who Enable Them

  1. Why did you single out rightwing bloggers, when it appears everyone was reporting off media souces which are largely liberal? Why didn’t you say the “mostly liberal media” if you were going to mention rightwing bloggers? It’s ironic since the piece is about needlessly smearing people.

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    • @Mike Farmer, Several reasons:
      1. A big part of the point of this piece is that the MSM’s reporting, particularly on terrorism, is about ratings and sensationalism, which causes it to become little more than a mouthpiece for government officials, regardless of which party is in power. Greenwald has consistently documented this problem in both the Bush and Obama administrations. The ideological inclinations of the reporters are thus irrelevant. Indeed, the allegations in the initial reports are directly harmful to the liberal worldview.

      2. While “liberal media bias” is accepted as fact by some, it is by no means accepted as fact by all, particularly considering that, whatever the general political inclinations of reporters, they ultimately work for corporations with their own agendas that may or may not be liberal.

      3. While it is certainly the case that most reporters are generally left-of-center in their personal political views, this is by no means true of all reporters, and I have no idea as to the political views of the specific reporters involved in pushing this story.

      4. On the other hand, I cannot imagine any one of the bloggers or pundits who jumped on this story (as shown by the memeorandum link) objecting in any way to be called “right-wing,” as they are all explicitly open about their political inclinations. Moreover, that they are right-of-center is directly relevant, as the narrative within which they each tried to place this story was expressly political.

      5. If I were to have instead written simply “bloggers and pundits predictably jumped on the story,” it would have created the misleading impression that some number of left-of-center bloggers likewise jumped on the story to advance their political narrative. I am not aware of any who did, and there certainly were not any that could be found via memeorandum.

      6. I also do not see how my reference to right-wing bloggers here is even a criticism of them on this issue, much less a “smear.” It’s not exactly a disputed point that right-of-center bloggers have an itchier trigger finger with regards to Islamic terrorism than do liberals, even if it is disputed whether the right-wing trigger finger is too sensitive or the left-wing trigger finger not sensitive enough. Indeed, the fact is that had the facts as initially reported turned out to be true, it would have been entirely fair for right-wing bloggers to lambast the silence on the Left about the case, making that silence the latest exhibit in their campaign to show that the Left does not take Islamic terrorism seriously.

      8. Although it was necessary to point out that the Right jumped on this story, that does not equate to saying that the Right shouldn’t have jumped on this story. The point is that the story itself guaranteed that the Right would jump on it, and the reason the reporter was able to write the story in that way was that he did nothing more than uncritically transcribe the statements of an anonymous “senior government official.” The reason the Left showed more patience on this story was quite likely just that it was unfavorable to them, and thus not worth discussing until the facts were fully confirmed; by the same token, the only reason the Right jumped on this story so quickly was that it fit within the Right’s narrative and – especially given the strong language in the story (ie, “almost certainly a dry run”), and the very suspicious facts as initially reported – it had little reason to dig deeper or wait for more information. Had the ideological interests been reversed, such as in the Hutaree militia story, the sides that would have jumped on the story would have simply been reversed. This is why the entire point of my piece – literally, the entire point – is that the relationship between media and “senior government officials,” whoever is in power, is deeply corrosive and has real victims.

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      • @Mark Thompson,
        As long as you are fair and balanced — it just seems you happen to write almost exclusively about the flaws of the “rightwing”. Now, list all the times you’ve been critical of the leftwing to prove me wrong. I’m just saying, I read just about all your writings and it appears you ignore much of the leftwing craziness. Did you see Ed Schultz’s response the Glenn Beck’s rally? That SOB is crazy as a bed bug, isn’t he? Actually the “objective” MSM was crazy in their coverage just about all the way around. But the fact that “rightwing” bloggers picked up on what the Mainstream Media was reporting is not surprising — they reported what they thought had been investigated and reported. The fact that leftwing bloggers didn’t report it is not surprising either. Are you saying the leftwing bloggers were more cautious because they know how incompetent the media is?

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        • @Mike Farmer, Honestly, I don’t follow Schultz or Beck at all (I’m pretty sure I’ve never even written about Beck, actually). As I’ve said before, though, if I’ve been harder on the Right, it’s because the Right’s flaws simply seem much worse to me these days. Moreover, the Right writ large acts the way in which it does while spouting language and principles that are generally quite dear to me; to the extent their words and actions are not only inconsistent (and they are), but are regularly and actively at war with each other, it is important to me to point that out.

          “But the fact that “rightwing” bloggers picked up on what the Mainstream Media was reporting is not surprising — they reported what they thought had been investigated and reported. The fact that leftwing bloggers didn’t report it is not surprising either. Are you saying the leftwing bloggers were more cautious because they know how incompetent the media is?”

          No. I’m saying that on this issue the left-wing bloggers were more skeptical and cautious about the story because it did not fit within their worldview. It’s the flip-side of confirmation bias. If the tables were turned, but the story just as inaccurate, it would have been left-wing bloggers who got duped by the reporting and the right-wing bloggers who would have been appropriately cautious.

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          • “As I’ve said before, though, if I’ve been harder on the Right, it’s because the Right’s flaws simply seem much worse to me these days.”

            Yeah, that’s kinda ridiculous. In particular, it’s hard to see why this story is supposed to be indicative of it. In contrast to the Duke lacrosse case, Marcotte (and especially some members of the Duke faculty) are at fault because they wrote things that they either knew or had good reason to know were false. The same just doesn’t apply here.

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            • @Koz, As I’ve repeatedly emphasized, this piece is not an attack on the Right. The sole and entire point of this piece is that the media’s cozy relationship with unnamed “senior government officials” leads it to push inaccurate and poorly fact-checked stories that can have devastating consequences for the targets of those stories. The reference to “right-wing pundits and bloggers” in the piece is there because that’s who happened to buy into this story. The Amanda Marcotte reference is there solely to show how even when the media recognizes its errors, and even where the victim of that error is well-off and has every tool imaginable to fight back, the damage has already been done, and there will be some people who are still convinced of the target’s guilt.

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          • @Mark Thompson,
            “I don’t follow Schultz”

            Julian Sanchez made a similar reply when I claimed the left is as bad as the right when it comes to hate and hyperbole — he said something like he doesn’t have cable. So, yes, if you don’t keep up with the worst of the left or you don’t actually listen to Beck, then it’s hard to see the whole picture. Listening to Beck side by side to Schultz, Beck is the model of reason and compassion. The left has gone absolutely ballistic lately, and they deserve more criticism from an objective observer at this point. The left’s rhetoric is much more destructive to civility in the current environment — and they are in power – so it’s strange you would concentate on the right.

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            • @Mike Farmer, This will be the last I have to say on this point, because it has nothing to do with the actual piece I wrote above.

              But a few things:
              1. I don’t much care about civility in debate (and I’ve said this before), one way or another. I care about actual discourse, which need not have anything to do with civility. This means that I care about underlying factual accuracy and meaningful representations of facts. It means I care about political controversy being about things that actually should matter. And it means that I care about participants’ words and actions being consistent, or at least that they be clear what they mean by their words and actions.

              2. I don’t see why a comparison between Beck and Schultz is even relevant if you’re trying to say that I’m too critical of the Right, since I’ve never actually written anything about Beck. But beyond that, let’s not pretend that Schultz’ influence on the Left (or even, for that matter, Olbermann’s) is even remotely that of Beck’s influence on the Right – in an even worse time slot, Beck pulls in about four or five times the viewership of Schultz, and twice the viewership of Olbermann (who has a coveted timeslot). And that says nothing about his book sales and the like.

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  2. Ironically, James Woods (yes, that James Woods) happened to be on a dry run for 9/11.

    snopes.com/rumors/woods.asp

    Maybe there aren’t dry runs for most attacks… but there was a dry run for the biggest one in recent memory.

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    • @Jaybird,

      “Woods took a flight from Boston to Los Angeles one week before the World Trade Center attacks. The only other people in first class with him were four men “of Middle Eastern appearance” who acted very strangely. During the entire cross-country flight none of them had anything to eat or drink, nor did they read or sleep. They only sat upright in their seats, occasionally conversing with each other in low tones.”

      If that is “acting very strangely”, I better worry about someone reporting me. I think the witness may have been watching too many James Woods movies.

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    • @Jaybird, A good point, although I think that’s a very different type of meaning for “dry run” than I’m using here or than is being used in the article I linked to above. The “dry run” of the 9/11 hijackers doesn’t seem to have been something that would have increased their risk of getting caught, especially pre-9/11 when we as a society weren’t terribly sensitive to suspicious activity on planes. By contrast, if the facts in this case were as initially reported, the men would have been intentionally increasing their risk of getting caught by trying to see what they could safely get past security without, er, getting caught. Indeed, if that’s what they were doing, then the folly of doing it is made readily apparent by the fact that they were, in fact, caught.

      Still, your point warrants a clarification, so I’ll amend the post accordingly.

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      • @Mark Thompson, I think I’m missing the salience of the distinction between the kinds of dry runs you are making. Are you conceding they were on one of these other kinds, but it shouldn’t be the basis for suspicion (ie be a pre-set pattern of behavior that officials should(n’t) look for travelers to exhibit)? Or that’s it’s unlikely they were on one, because they’s have had to be okay with getting caught? I’m just not following how the distinction plays into your overall argument.

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        • @Michael Drew, I don’t think the dry runs question is critical to the argument here (and I concede it’s not the strongest part of my argument either), but to the extent it is pertinent, I’m just trying to point out that the sort of thing (ie, running a “mock bomb” through security) these guys were initially accused of doing is not something that a terrorist would ordinarily do, and some fact-checking on that topic likely would have resulted in a much different initial story.

          That level of fact-checking and investigation, though, may well be a bit too much to ask, which is why I acknowledge this is one of my weaker points. The much stronger point, though, is that a journalist doing more than transcribing the words of an unnamed “senior government official” would, at a minimum, verify where this guy was from, that the pair had actually been charged (rather than merely arrested), and also verify the circumstances that caused them to alter their itineraries. Ideally, there’d also be an interview with one of the grunts doing the actual investigation work, but I understand that’s probably not realistic in most circumstances.

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  3. It’s a shame we have to be so careful about passengers and behavior — there’s the human tendency to misread things that ordinarily we’d not pay attention to. I hope one day this whole scare goes away.

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  4. “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.*”

    IIRC, the 9/11 attacks were “dry ran.” Are you arguing that they weren’t here?

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  5. When I first saw the title of this post, I thought it was about something Sarah Palin had said. ;)

    Anyway, merely taping cell phones together as a strategy to avoid damage seems like a dumb idea to me. Why not do what everyone else does with fragile items–wrap them up in your socks or underwear? And taping a phone to a Pepto bottle? How on earth is that supposed to protect it?

    But regardless of this, you’re entirely correct that the naming of names and sensationalized descriptions was totally irresponsible.

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    • @Eric Seymour, Taping things together prevents them from banging into each other, and it’s entirely possible that the phones were taped together inside a sock or a cushioned apartment or something of that nature (the stories I’ve seen don’t really discuss this). As for the Pepto thing – that’s the one part that doesn’t have an easy explanation. The pictures I’ve seen don’t give a good angle on it, but the angle I have seen makes it appear like the bottle and the phone are not wrapped very tightly together, so it’s possible the tape just snagged onto the bottle. But, again, the angle I’ve seen is pretty gawdawful.

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  6. Mark:

    If you want to split hairs about what constitutes a “dry-run so as to justify your pontification about how unfair these guys are being treated please go ahead. What these guys did was legal but sure suspicions in this day and age. The unnamed official should not have jumped the gun but life isn’t always fair and isn’t going to become so, no matter how much liberals complain about it.

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    • @Scott, I don’t recall saying that it wasn’t suspicious. To the contrary, I seem to recall writing this:
      “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.”

      My complaint is with the fact that an unnamed “senior government official” jumped the gun and provided demonstrably untrue or misleading information to the media, who dutifully and uncritically reported it as fact without further investigation , all while plastering these two men’s faces on televisions and computer screens around the world.

      If the media had taken an hour or two to make the requisite phone calls to verify certain basic facts before plastering the names and images of these two men on tvs and computer screens around the world, no harm is done to anyone – even if it turned out the unnamed “senior government official” was right; the men would still have remained in custody until their explanations could have been verified.

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  7. Here is my biggest problem with what happened: the announcement.

    Let’s assume, just for a moment, that this *WAS* a dry run. Boo! Hiss! Evil Terrorists!

    Well, what happened? We’ve got announcement after announcement that they were able to get their plausibly deniable bombs on the plane and didn’t get caught until they were on the ground. Hurray.

    And let’s say that it wasn’t a dry run. They were just some dudes who happened to do some stuff. Hurray! Freedom of travel! What we’ve done is said that their wacky packing techniques got on the plane and didn’t really get noticed until well after any bombs would have gone off even if this were a dry run.

    And we’ve announced this to the entire friggin’ world.

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    • @Jaybird, I don’t know about this, actually. The one part of the story that seems to have held up right from the start is that these wacky packing techniques resulted in a closer inspection in Birmingham, during which it was actually verified that this was just wacky packing and not an actual bomb (and that the guy wasn’t carrying anything actually dangerous), but that the wacky packing was nonetheless suspicious enough to warrant additional air marshals and, eventually, detention. The one lapse in security was that the luggage was allowed onto the Dulles flight even though the two men had not boarded – this, however, was the airline’s fault, and it’s no secret that airlines put luggage on flights they shouldn’t all the time, as anyone who’s ever lost their luggage can attest.

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      • @Mark Thompson, if that’s the case, what the government did is much more understandable.

        “Don’t bother trying, terrorists! We can even detect when two cell phones are taped together! Or taped to some Mountain Dew!”

        In either case, the identities of the guys in question are irrelevant. The point is to communicate to anyone whom it may concern that we can stop terrorist attacks.

        Now the question comes:

        Were the arrests the result of the some functionary saying “holy crap, this was a dry run, we need to announce something!!!” (followed by “wait, we can’t just announce something, we have to arrest people too”)?

        At the end of the day, it seems like so much “security theater” unless, of course, they found out that the two guys *WERE* associated with bad folks.

        I don’t know that the government deserves the benefit of the doubt here.

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        • @Jaybird, er, which is not to say that you were giving the government the benefit of the doubt.

          But what happened seems an obvious attempt to make sure all asses were covered (it ain’t about innocent until proven guilty, it’s all about “what if it *WAS* a dry run?”) and, hell, while they were doing that, they might as well arrest some folks and make some announcements.

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