Friday, July 28, 2006

FOR THE WAR ON TERROR, which is better? True stories that aren't interesting or interesting stories that aren't true?

It's official, the war on terror is a source of entertainment. Not for everyone -- but for those who've become the symbolic interpreters of it, like talk-show newsmen, network news frontmen, or the famous journalist with a revolving book contract -- it is. The terror war works as a provider of material which can be cherry-picked, or embellished, even told straight, but packaged to be delivered as a diversion.

Information and revelations on national security now often don't come through careful reporting, or the public delivery of intelligence into the open by verifiable sources, but in media vehicles which are said to be excellent work, but with the excellence more in the way they are marketed for maximum publicity, impact or some variable political agenda. The stories of terror are for the telling, not for informing.

Of course, good reporting is still done on the war on terror. When that happens, less people pay attention. When they do it's because they've been told to by others for reasons of outrage. As when somewhat less than half of the country appeared to get up in arms over the idea that the delivery boys of news of things thing the Bush administration is doing in secret might be traitors, or that certain name agencies within the newsmedia -- the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, for example -- are helping al Qaeda with their exposes.

But today, Dick Destiny blog -- with its GlobalSecurity.Org senior fellow hat firmly on, comes back to Pulitzer-winner Ron Suskind and his book, The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11.

In a review in the New York Times book review last Sunday, Suskind was described as "a top notch newspaperman, one of the best natural writers the Wall Street Journal ever produced, and he commands an authorial voice many journalists can only dream of. Give him an hour with a cooperative source, and he'll give you six pages of beautiful scene-setting, scissor sharp dialogue and a nugget or two of insight . . . "

It could be true. Dick Destiny blog isn't sure. Most people it knows aren't scissor sharp speakers and it gets suspicious when it reads non-fiction dialogue that's so alert.

So when it reads Suskind's reporting about things it knows a bit about, it doesn't hear an "authorial voice." It finds what could be errors or extraordinary claims, world-changing ones, that are either not attributed or simply a page or half-page of blurbs.

In Suskind's book you never know who is delivering information to the reporter, just that it could be someone famous from inner circles, a Mr. Z or a Mr. Y or a Mr. X. You can take wild guesses at who they might be but there's no way to know motivations for imparting the information, the credibility of those interviewed or even the level of basic common sense present in the room.

But because Suskind is a name in bright lights within the newsmedia, no one actually addressed this in a major way when retelling items which for them were sensational and pleasing stories of menace and terror barely averted.

The story of al Qaeda's cyanide-producing Mubtakkar bomb was one such cracking fine story. It furnished everything the newsmedia would want in terror news or infotainment. It could be quickly described and it meant black choking death in the New York City subway in big numbers.

While few impeded it even slightly on television or old media print, it did raise questions.

Suskind described an improvised weapon that was assembed by government experts and shown in White House briefings to throw scares into people, convincing them of the gravity of its menace. By the end of The One Percent Doctrine, it's a the equivalent of a knick-knack tossed on a table by George W. Bush.

But there's no picture of the vaunted hardware. It's missing. Too sensitive? Classified? The reader isn't told.

On the other hand, the Department of Homeland Security did distribute a photograph and memorandum containing another jihadist-inspired cyanide bomb in 2003. It was in color, well described and not classified. It was, in other words, in the open.

Suskind's Mubtakkar, however, was not, apparently, until the publication of his book. And his cyanide-bomb does not correspond with the DHS-described cyanide-bomb, one which could be compared with a jihadist drawing of the same also found in open source.

And herein lies a problem. It's not a small issue and it gets at the heart of telling the story of the war on terror as infotainment vs. providing information and careful wisdom on the same thing.

The US government did not describe its cyanide-bomb, made up from a jihadist diagram, as the terror equivalent of "splitting the atom," as Suskind did. The memorandum on it was cautiously delivered nationwide with caveats as to where it might work and where it might not. It came with reasoned analysis that described elements of uncertainty associated with it. It was not made into a sensation. It wasn't a throw-up-your-hands-in- panic piece of technology, like Suskind's Mubtakkar.

Suskind, however, delivered no such uncertainty with his Mubtakkar. It was "a portable disaster, easy to assemble," he wrote. It was "a device that bent the laws of physics" and was "a holy grail for terrorists."

Of course, it did not bend nature, it depended on a simple chemical reaction. But the prose is a sensation, building the icy cold menace into the story of secret terror plots.

For the book, Suskind goes briefly into the history of cyanide-producing devices. He mentions the Aum Shinrikyo terror group's efforts in this area. Aum, flubbed lethal cyanide-production a couple of times in Japan, possibly more, and definitely possessed materials and intent. And as part of a wide-ranging criminal case, the information on Aum's methods, successes and failures made its way into the open. But the DHS-made Mubtakkar, which was also available in open source and which would seem to pertain to the war on terror in exactly the same slot as Suskind's Mubtakkar is absent from his book's account.

Did it not stretch the laws of physics enough?

With the DHS-distributed photo and jihadist diagram of one cyanide-producing bomb in the open, Dick Destiny blog was able to ask enough questions to trace the history of both here. An anonymous government source attested to the truth of it and added that while information had not been publicized, such a device has been used once in Afghanistan, where it failed. This sounded true but because it was not accompanied by anything more substantive than say-so from authority, it's impossible to know if it's absolutely so. Caution is recommended.

In any case, Suskind did not stop with the Mubtakkar. He writes that al Qaeda produced anthrax in Afghanistan and that a sample of it was seized in Kandahar. Apparently this, too, was a secret, because nowhere in the scholarly record, or in any attachments to official reports on 9/11 and its aftermath, has this startling fact been revealed.

Like Suskind's writing on the Mubtakkar, the details are scant but sensational. "The CIA . . . descended on a house in Kandahar and discovered a small, extremely potent example of the biological agent."

Anthrax, like efficient mass cyanide-production, was thought to be "beyond al Qaeda's abilities . . . it could be easily reproduced [by al Qaeda] to create a quantity that could be readily weaponized."

These are astonishing statements. With all the information and investigation into anthrax and terrorism since 9/11, the US government has not seen fit to tell the people that it was found in Afghanistan, leaving it to a popular book?

The scholarly take on al Qaeda and anthrax was pieced together by arms control experts, most prominently Milton Leitenberg, a research scholar at the University of Maryland. One description of their desires and work, "Al Qaeda BW efforts in Afghanistan: 1997-98 to 2001" can be found in his monograph, "Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat." (It's here.)

It has a few obvious differences with Suskind's story. It's more detailed, as befits a scholarly discourse, and it is footnoted.

Leitenberg writes of an individual, revealed in letters seized in Kandahar in 2001, a man "with Ph.D.-level training who understood the professional microbiology literature, and who understood professional procedures for purchasing pathogen cultures. He was willing to trade on the access provided by his status, while concealing the true purpose of his activities, which was to provide al Qaeda with the means to attempt its first [Biological Warfare] capability. However, he was not prepared to do any of the laboratory work himself. There is no evidence in any of the declassified pages to indicate that any bacterial cultures had yet been obtained, or that any had been shipped to Afghanistan or Pakistan or that any work had yet begun."

Leitenberg also picks up the story prior to and after the invasion by analyzing the statements of government officials, including CIA-director George Tenet, and information revealed in interrogations with al Qaeda men tasked in the project for developing a biological weapon, Yazid Sufaat and Hambali (aka Raduan Isamuddin).

The discussion is careful and replete with caveats but comes to the conclusion that while al Qaeda had plans in Afghanistan and had allocated resources and men to carry them forward, that "nothing so far translated indicated access to the most dangerous microbial strains or to any advanced processing methods . . . "

"After his capture, Hambali told his interrogators that he had earlier been collaborating with Sufaat, that he had been trying 'trying to open an al Qaeda bioweapons branch plant,' and that Sufaat 'had been working on an al Qaeda anthrax program in Kandahar' . . . but that after the U.S. attack on the Taliban, they had planned to move the 'program' to Indonesia. However, Sufaat had been unable to obtain a pathogenic strain of anthrax," wrote Leitenberg. (Leitenberg gleans these statements from open source newspaper accounts.)

Leitenberg adds, "The key question regarding the information . . . is whether there is additional documentary or material evidence to support it beyond that already obtained in the papers found in November 2001 and the locations occupied at the time. Those did not indicate success 'in isolating cultures of [anthrax]. And only the Sterne vaccine strain had been available to the group in Afghanistan . . . "

It is a complicated analysis. Dick Destiny blog encourages you to read it completely, and Leitenberg qualifies his examination with uncertainty where appropriate. History, of course, is changeable when new facts arrive.

However, Suskind's support for al Qaeda's production of anthrax is far slimmer. He also mentions Hambali and Yazid Sufaat, but in his book's telling, "One disclosure was particularly alarming: al Qaeda had, in fact, produced high grade anthrax. Hambali, under interrogation, revealed its whereabouts in Afghanistan."

And that is it.

But that was enough to be mentioned in a Sunday New York Times magazine article and to be hit upon in a brief bit of drive-by terror war infotainment on the McLaughlin Group, an interview in which the Suskind book is called "a staggering achievement."

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Now, you know that anthrax is not easy to deliver.

MR. SUSKIND: It is not.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It's highly milled, extremely highly milled.


MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It has to be inhaled in true inhaling. It has to be -- sometimes it can be put in an air conditioner, but even that's hard to do. And then if you -- the talk about the Super Bowl and wiping out hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of people at the Super Bowl from an airplane above, the airplane would have to be flying at a certain speed; it would have to deliver it in a certain atmosphere, et cetera -- not easy to do.

MR. SUSKIND: Not easy to do.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And is that all that al Qaeda is thinking about now, or is that gone too?

MR. SUSKIND: Another thing we now know from this investigation is that al Qaeda, to our surprise, had produced a very virulent sample of weaponizable anthrax. I won't get into all the specifics as to how we know it's weaponizable, but it is. That shocked us. We knew they were working on labs and trying their best, but it is hard to do, as you say. We found in the fall of 2003, through intelligence, we found that they had produced and we went to Kandahar and found the sample.

All nicely wrapped and finished. Although the U.S. government has never officially revealed it, "we" can't get into the specifics of how "we" know al Qaeda had "weaponizable" anthrax but "we" do and "we" found it.

Likely, unlikely, yes, no, truth, fiction, factual fiction, or half-truths, there's no way to tell. What can be said is that the biggest claims find their way into the best newsbytes delivered in selling the book.

Now, let us jump to page 185 of Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine. The writing is rat-a-tat-tat and "we" again comes into play:

There was an up-and-coming player named Zarqawi -- we'd been tracking him through 2002 . . . He was, it seemed, behind several biochemical attacks in Europe, including a scare involving ricin, the toxic paste made from castor beans, in Britain the previous summer.

Except there were no "several biochemical attacks in Europe."

And the panic over an alleged ricin ring in Britain did not occur in the summer of 2001.
Infamous ricin scare newspaper coverage
The frontpage headline of Britain's Mirror newspaper on January 8, 2003, was "IT'S HERE" and the accompanying story suggested that a ricin plot had been found in England, just before the war in Iraq.

British anti-terrorist branch men swooped down on suspected terrorists in the north and east of London in September of 2002 and January of 2003. In one of the sweeps on January 5, called Operation Springbourne, the plant poison ricin was claimed to have been found in an apartment above a pharmacy in a place called Wood Green. The news flashed around the world.

In the subsequent trial of the alleged London ricin ring in 2005, a jury found everyone but one loner, Kamel Bourgass, not guilty. During the proceedings it came out that no ricin had actually been made at Wood Green and that the initial finding publicized in British and American newspapers had been a false positive.

The story of it was long and complicated, littered with inconvenient facts that contradicted the original received wisdom delivered in the newsmedia. Despite that, much of it still made its way into British newspapers and onto the Internet.

But somehow the Pulitzer-winning reporter and his editors at Simon & Schuster missed it. The date was wrong and the association with Zarqawi was wrong. The poison recipes attributed to Kamel Bourgass, the principal defendant in the poison terror ring case, were found on Yahoo servers in Palo Alto, California, and no biochemical attacks had been carried out in Europe.

Eh -- to err is human.

But when the selling point of your book and the credence given to its extraordinary stories are aligned with the reputation as a Pulitzer-winning reporter . . .

The lay reader of Suskind's book might not be expected to know such details. But some people do and botching that which is easy to get right doesn't inspire confidence in the reporting of bigger claims that have much less substantiation for them in open sources.

So here is the dilemma for publishers, editors, reporters and readers: Are the stories of the war on terrorism not so good if they don't come with the extraordinary claim from the inside, if the truth is judged uninteresting? Are they perhaps not entertaining enough, too incapable of selling books, of captivating viewers, of getting attention?

What's true? What's not? Is it better for the polity to have interesting stories provided to it by its symbolic interpreters, ones that aren't necessarily true, to understand the war on terror?

Near the end of The One Percent Doctrine, some scissor-sharp dialogue emerges:

No one says, "There's no proof!" the CIA manager exhorted, his voice rising . . . "There is no judgment in the system. No one is saying, 'Based on my experience, this person is a lying dog' . . . "


Anonymous arkhilokhos said...

Who cares whether it's true; is it relevant? ;)
The Register

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