Report Hits Media Coverage of Terrorism Before 9/11

By: Charles Geraci

While at first glance the 9/11 commission’s report seems to offer little examination of the media, a key summary paragraph criticizes newspapers’ coverage in the months leading up to Sept. 11, an E&P reading of the full report finds.

The very end of a chapter titled “Foresight — And Hindsight,” reads, “Between May 2001 and September 11, there was very little in newspapers or on television to heighten anyone’s concern about terrorism. Front-page stories touching on the subject dealt with the windup of trials dealing with the East Africa embassy bombings and [Ahmed] Ressam. All this reportage looked backward, describing problems satisfactorily resolved. Back-page notices told of tightened security at embassies and military installations abroad and government cautions against travel to the Arabian Peninsula. All the rest was secret.”

The commission also, at one point, appears to castigate the media in general. It says that terrorism, specifically Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda, was not an important issue in the 2000 presidential campaign, and the media “called little attention to it” at the time.

At another point, on page 359, it describes how Jordan arrested 16 terrorists planning bombings in that country, including two U.S. citizens, but the news “only made page 13 of The New York Times.”

In another brief shot at that paper, the report observes: “It is hard now to recapture the conventional wisdom before 9/11. For example, a New York Times article in April 1999 sought to debunk claims that Bin Laden was a terrorist leader, with the headline ‘U.S. Hard Put to Find Proof Bin Laden Directed Attacks.'”

The commission also offered an interesting media-related insight regarding pressures on the CIA. In its evaluation of the intelligence agency, the commission reports that starting in the 1990s, the CIA found it had to move more quickly, in response to, and then reflecting, “the culture of the newsroom. During the 1990s, the rise of round-the-clock news shows and the Internet reinforced pressure on analysts to pass along fresh reports to policymakers at an even-faster pace, trying to add context or supplement what their customers were receiving from the media.” This led to weaknesses “in all-source and strategic analysis.”

In other specific notes, the commission found that after a leak to The Washington Times in 1998, al Qaeda’s senior leadership almost immediately stopped a particular method of communication, which made it increasingly difficult to intercept Bin Laden’s conversations.

It also reports (page 373) one Saudi “reformer” complaining to the commission that the “demonization of Saudi Arabia in the U.S. media gives ammunition to the radicals” in that country.

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