Adam Johnson / Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting – 2015-07-14 18:11:25
Got to Be Thwarting Something:
FBI Claims It Stopped Unspecified Mayhem, Possibly on July 4
Adam Johnson / Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting
(July 11, 2015) — Last week, in the wake of another vague terror warning issued by the government, FAIR reported how FBI terror warnings have a long history of always being wrong. [See story below — EAW.] Others also noted the FBI’s habit of issuing pointless terror warnings, including The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian‘s Trevor Timm and FireDogLakeâ€˜s Kevin Gosztola. There was a general sense among many that the July 4 “warning” was just another empty terror warning meant to scare, provide CYA for the FBI and ultimately fizzle out like so many before.
And, in fact, the holiday weekend came and went, with the FBI “terror warning” hyped by the media foreshadowing nothing more than for two false alarms and a handful of canceled Fourth of July plans.
So it was curious, to say the least, when on Thursday the FBI asserted to CNN’s Jim Sciutto that “a number” of “ISIS-inspired” terror plots had been “thwarted” from “coast to coast” over the Fourth of July weekend:
US law enforcement efforts thwarted a number of terror threats in the last two weeks, including plots timed to the July 4 holiday weekend, US officials tell CNN on Thursday. The thwarted plots included targets “coast to coast.” In fitting with calls by ISIS to attack in any way possible, the attempted plots were unsophisticated, including guns, knives and other weapons.
Also fitting with recent patterns, investigators believe the plots, though not directed by overseas terror groups providing specific means of attack or specific targets, were “enabled” by actors abroad, including recruiting the suspects and encouraging them to carry out attacks on US soil.
(Note: the article was updated at 2:27 pm EST with a video of Sciutto directly addressing “terror warning” skeptics. A total coincidence, to be sure.)
The evidence for these plots? As usual, none was provided. Just the word of “US officials.”
About an hour later, USA Today and others would report FBI Director James Comey making similar claims:
FBI Director James Comey said Thursday that federal authorities disrupted an undisclosed number of plots timed to the July 4 holiday to “kill people in the United States.” The plots, Comey said, were linked to the Islamic State terror group.
More than 10 people have been arrested in the past four weeks on charges related to their association with ISIL. Some of those, Comey said, involved plots timed to July 4th. Comey declined to elaborate on the nature of the plots or where they were targeted.
Notice the weasel phrasing the media uncritically allow Comey to engage in: “timed to the July 4th weekend”; “related to their association with ISIL.”
No specifics were provided in the follow-up reports, either. Even noted FBI press release-reader Jim Sciutto would qualify his piece by adding, “No further details were immediately available about how the plots were thwarted.”
You get more of a sense of what actually was going on from Pete Williams’ NBC News report, if you do a little reading between the lines:
Comey added that those inspired by ISIS don’t make elaborate plans and often act on the spur of the moment.
“It’s actually hard to figure out when they’re trying to kill somebody,” Comey said. “And you cannot say, ‘Well, we’ve got to do it on the Fourth.’ Because you know you have people who are motivated to kill people, and they are unreliable in terms of when they’re going to act.”
So the arrests were of people without “elaborate plans” who are “unreliable in terms of when they’re going to act.” It’s not even clear that they were intending to act, since it’s “hard to figure out when they’re trying to kill somebody.” But not hard to get the media to report as fact that these plan-less, unreliably scheduled suspects who may or may not have been trying to kill anybody had “ISIS terrorist plots linked to the Fourth of July holiday.”
These plots, it should be noted, are not without political context. Just yesterday, as USA Today reports, FBI Director Comey testified before congress about the importance of being able to get around encryption software to “fight terror”:
The director’s comments come a day after testifying before members of Congress about the security risks posed by the government’s limited investigative capabilities as suspects increasingly use encrypted applications to “go dark.”
As the Washington Post reported on July 4, “lawmakers” also wanted to step up FBI surveillance of social media to prevent “ISIS recruiting online” by forcing social media companies to monitor and report “terrorist content.”
FAIR has contacted the FBI and asked for any specific thwarted plots. As of press time, none were provided. If they are, this post will be updated.
Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet and writes frequently for FAIR.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc.
Zero for 40 at Predicting Attacks:
Why Do Media Still Take FBI Terror Warnings Seriously?
Adam Johnson / FAIR
(July 1, 2015) — On Monday, several mainstream media outlets repeated the latest press release by the FBI that country was under a new “heightened terror alert” from “ISIL-inspired attacks” “leading up to the July 4th weekend.” One of the more sensational outlets, CNN, led with the breathless warning on several of its cable programs, complete with a special report by The Lead‘s Jim Sciutto in primetime:
The threat was given extra credence when former CIA director — and consultant at DC PR firm Beacon Global Strategies — Michael Morell went on CBS This Morning (6/29/15) and scared the ever-living bejesus out of everyone by saying he “wouldn’t be surprised if we were sitting [in the studio] next week discussing an attack on the US.” The first piece of evidence Morell used to justify his apocalyptic posture, the “50 ISIS arrests,” was accompanied by a scary map on the CBS jumbotron showing “ISIS arrests” all throughout the US:
But one key detail is missing from this graphic: None of these “ISIS arrests” involved any actual members of ISIS, only members of the FBI — and their network of informants — posing as such. (The one exception being the man arrested in Arizona, who, while having no contact with ISIS, was also not prompted by the FBI.)
So even if one thinks the threat of “lone wolf” attacks is a serious one, it cannot be said these are really “ISIS arrests.” Perhaps on some meta-level, it shows an increase of “radicalization,” but it’s impossible to distinguish between this and simply more aggressive sting operations by the FBI.
In any event, this nuance gets left out entirely. As I’ve previously shown, in the media’s rush to hype the threat, the fact of FBI-manufactured — or at least “assisted” — terror plots is left out as a complicating factor altogether, and the viewer is left thinking the FBI arrested 50 actual ISIS sleeper cells.
Nevertheless, the ominous FBI (or Department of Homeland Security) “terror warning” has become such a staple of the on-going, seemingly endless “war on terror” (d/b/a war on ISIS), we hardly even notice it anymore. Marked by a feedback loop of extremist propaganda, unverifiable claims about “online chatter” and fuzzy pronouncements issued by a neverending string of faceless Muslim bad guys, and given PR cover by FBI-contrived “terror plots,” the specter of the impending “attack” is part of a broader white noise of fear that never went away after 9/11.
Indeed, the verbiage employed by the FBI in this latest warning — “we’re asking people to remain vigilant” — implies no actual change of the status quo, just an hysterical nudge to not let down our collective guard.
There’s only one problem: These warnings never actually come to fruition. Not rarely, or almost never, but — by all accounts — never. No attacks, no arrests, no suspects at large.
Here’s a selection of previous FBI and DHS “terror warnings” over the past 14 years, not a single one of which actually predicted or foiled a terror attack:
“Potential use of chemical/biological and/or radiological/nuclear weapons”
Statue of Liberty
“Around the Fourth of July holiday”
“AQ to attack Amtrak”
“Spectacular Al Qaeda attacks”
“Apartments, hotels, sports arenas and amusement parks”
“Possibility of multiple attacks”
“Attempt to affect the outcome” of presidential election
July 2004: “Military facilities and large gatherings” on July 4th
NYC & Baltimore subways
“Shopping malls in Chicago and LA”
“Al Qaeda to attack transit during Thanksgiving”
Mass transit in New York City
“Americans in Europe” facing “commando-style AQ attack”
“Threats of retaliation”
Al Qaeda “hit list”
“Private jets of executives” involved in drone manufacturing
“New York City or Washington aroundâ€¦10th anniversary of 9/11”
Anarchists blowing up bridge during Tampa RNC
“Islamic violence over movie”
“San Fransisco on high alert”
“College students abroad”
ISIS targeting Mississippi River bridge
ISIS “sabotaging US military personnel” over social media
ISIS targeting “parts of California”
ISIS targeting “military bases”
A casual search reveals the FBI and DHS are a pitiful 0 for 40 warning of terror attacks — some of which were specifically about 4th of July threats, none of which materialized in any way. This should not be considered a comprehensive list of all threat warnings transmitted by media; I tried to narrow the scope to warnings that were at least in some way specific.
The actual terror attacks carried out on US soil — the Times Square bomber, “Underwear bomber,” Boston bombing and Garland attacks — were accompanied by no such warnings. (Nor were the often deadlier terrorist attacks by right-wing white terrorists — but terrorism in this category is rarely if ever the subject of FBI warnings.)
So why, a rational person may ask, does the media keeps repeating them if they’re wrong 100 percent of the time?
The problem is three fold:
1. The FBI has all the incentive in the world to issue warnings and no incentive whatsoever to not issue warnings. Issuing warnings has no downside, while not doing so is all downside.
2. The FBI, like all agencies of the government, does not operate in a political vacuum. Emphasizing the “ISIS threat” at home necessarily helps prop up the broader war effort the FBI’s boss, the president of the United States, must sell to a war-weary public. The incentive is to therefore highlight the smallest threats. This was a feature that did not go unnoticed during the Bush years, but has since fallen out of fashion.
3. It has no actual utility. What does it mean to be “more vigilant”? It’s a vague call to alertness that officials, aside from “beefing up security” by local police, never quite explain what it means. If the FBI wanted to tell local police departments to up their security of the 4th of July weekend, surely they could do so quietly, without the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security having to go on all major networks talking over b-roll of ISIS in apocalyptic terms.
When I brought up these objections up to CNN’s Sciutto, his response was less than satisfying:
@jimsciutto What news value does this have aside from propaganda? what is the average person supposed to do with this information exactly?
@adamjohnsonNYC fair question, the point is about the wider threat, FBI encourages people to attend events but be vigilant
@jimsciutto “vigilant” how? How is one supposed to be vigilant of threats that are, by definition, random? What does this even mean?
@adamjohnsonNYC the phrase is “if you see something say something” general, yes, but it has helped law enforcement capture suspects before
@jimsciutto Its post 9-11 color chart all over again. Its at best FBI-ass covering & at worst war propaganda. Either way, it has no utility
@adamjohnsonNYC I hear your point. C-T is by nature general. Question is, would you prefer no warnings? Warnings only when attacks imminent?
Yes, I would prefer warnings only when attacks were imminent. Which, of course, they never are. Because if they were, the government would actually attempt to stop them, rather than running a three-day PR tour.< CNN's Jake Tapper, to his credit, would raise my concerns to Michael Chertoff later that day: The Lead CNN @TheLeadCNN Ex-DHS head pushes back against terror warning skeptics While the attempt to introduce some skepticism is very much appreciated, Tapper missed the fundamental problem altogether. Next time he has on a Chertoff or a McCaul discussing a vague government terror warning, I'd like him to ask this simple question: "Has the FBI ever successfully warned, or foreshadowed in anyway, a terror attack in the United States? Because so far the count is 0 for 40+, and I'm curious what makes this time different." Put the burden of proof on those who are attempting to scare us, march our men and women off to war, and line their private security firm's pockets. Don't demand "FBI warning skeptics" disprove those in power; make those in power justify their own consistently discredited "warnings." If journalists still insist on disseminating these vague "threats," I ask this question: How many false positives would be required for you to eventually stop doing so? Seventy? Two hundred? Because 14 years on, I'm curious when, if ever, this media trope will ever end. Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet and writes frequently for FAIR.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc.
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