Last week I asked a sterling reporter for a national newspaper: "Do you fellows sometimes feel like you are on a runaway horse, and cannot get off?" My point was that, starting with the morning headlines of August 2, the national newspapers have been preoccupied with government-inspired stories citing anonymous sources (in the U.S., Britain and Pakistan), talking about a "treasure trove" of old discovered documents, just-captured agents of al Qaeda, and fresh "streams of intelligence."
The Tom Ridge press conference of nearly two weeks ago started the summer snowball rolling, and there has been little sign of it slowing down. Just yesterday, on Friday the 13th, came reports that the White House really, really, expects a massive terrorist strike to influence the election.
Headlines for the past twelve days recorded unfolding events, based on carefully doled-out information, that added up to a steadily evolving image of America at war at home.
On Monday, August 2, every national newspaper led with the raising of the color-coded alert to orange and warnings from the chief of Homeland Security of al Qaeda plans to attack major financial institutions. The warnings were based on what all the papers at first called new intelligence based on recently discovered documents, chilling in their specificity.
By the next day, however, there was skepticism in the air, reflected by The New York Times head: "Reports That Led to Terror Alert Were Years Old, Officials Say." On August 4 the administration counter-attacked. The Washington Post observed: "Seriousness of Threat Defended Despite Dated Intelligence."
The rest of the week's meatiest headlines on homeland security trumpeted intelligence revelations, arrests abroad, al Qaeda on the prowl, all occurring within a remarkably short time frame. By Monday, August 9, the immediacy of the danger from domestic terrorists was kicked up a notch, with "Tourist Copters in New York City a Terror Target" and "Capitol Still Al Qaeda Target, Official Says."
In all of this, the vast majority of stories in The New York Times, to cite one example,originated with, or relied upon, information from unnamed sources.
There is one inescapable conclusion from recent press coverage of the steady streams of threat information emanating from Washington and London and Pakistan. National newspapers, however unwittingly, have been drawn into "flooding the zone" with stories that move to the forefront of public consciousness the issue that the White House would like to have at the top of the agenda in this election season: domestic security and threats to the homeland.
On any given day, it is clear that presidential staff, the Secretary of Homeland Security, or an anonymous intelligence official, can crank up the cycle again by feeding the frenzy. Consider two stories that ran on August 13 in the country's two leading newspapers.
Mike Allen reported in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration believes more strongly than ever that al Qaeda terrorists plan to try to influence the presidential race with a massive pre-election attack, a strike that is more likely to come in August or September than in October, a White House official said yesterday. The official ratcheted up administration warnings of an election-related attack on a day when President Bush and Vice President Cheney were on the campaign trail contending that Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) would be a weak commander in chief. Some Democrats accuse the White House of issuing repeated terrorism warnings to inspire fear so voters will hesitate to change leaders with the nation under threat.
"The White House official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said the government had not gleaned any new information about political motives for an attack since the spring, when administration officials began saying they were concerned about an attack in conjunction with the Nov. 2 election. Nothing to date indicates 'an imminent operation,' the official said."
Meanwhile, David Johnston and David Sanger of The New York Times reported: "Al Qaeda operatives updated surveillance conducted at five financial institutions in New York, New Jersey and Washington as recently as this spring, according to a senior White House official who said on Thursday that the authorities still had no direct evidence of an active terror plot."
Then, in Saturday's Post, Dan Eggen and John Lancaster declared: "The new evidence suggests that al Qaeda is battered but not beaten, and that a motley collection of old hands and recent recruits has formed a nucleus in Pakistan that is pushing forward with plans for attacks in the United States, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials....
"The Bush administration generally views the recent arrests and intelligence discoveries not only as a window into al Qaeda's operations, but also as a serious blow to what remains of the network....Some Pakistani intelligence officials are more cautious. They say that such arrests may have a limited impact both on al Qaeda, which they view as already dispersed, and Islamist terrorists who are inspired by bin Laden but not beholden to him."
This sort of "warnings roulette" will play out over and over again, whenever the executive branch wants to inform us, and to scare us, with the White House calling balls and strikes in a one-sided game.
It is so subtle, yet so obvious.
William E. Jackson Jr.,a frequent contributor, served as executive director of President Carter's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control.
This article was originally published in the August 14, 2004 issue of Editor & Publisher