How Trump got it wrong in saying the NYT ‘foiled’ killing of ISIS leader

The New York Times reports: President Trump wrongly tweeted on Saturday that The New York Times had “foiled” an attempt by the United States military to kill Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.

“The Failing New York Times foiled U.S. attempt to kill the single most wanted terrorist, Al-Baghdadi,” the president wrote. “Their sick agenda over National Security.”

Mr. Trump’s statement appeared to be based on a report by Fox News; he is known to be an avid viewer, and a version of the story was broadcast about 25 minutes before he posted. The report said that The Times had disclosed intelligence in an article on June 8, 2015, about an American military raid in Syria that led to the death of one of Mr. Baghdadi’s key lieutenants, Abu Sayyaf, and the capture of his wife, who played an important role in the group.

That Fox News report cited comments by Gen. Tony Thomas, the head of the United States Special Operations Command, in an interview conducted Friday by the network’s intelligence correspondent, Catherine Herridge, at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

General Thomas said that a valuable lead on Mr. Baghdadi’s whereabouts “was leaked in a prominent national newspaper about a week later and that lead went dead.” He did not name The Times.

But a review of the record shows that information made public in a Pentagon news release more than three weeks before the Times article, and extensively covered at the time by numerous news media outlets, would have tipped off Mr. Baghdadi that the United States was questioning an important Islamic State operative who knew of his recent whereabouts and some of his methods of communication. Further, the information in the Times article on June 8 came from United States government officials who were aware that the details would be published.

A White House spokesman had no comment on Mr. Trump’s tweet. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that he believed Mr. Baghdadi, whose possible death has been the subject of repeated rumors, was still alive.

Here are the facts. [Continue reading…]

Politico reports: The New York Times on Sunday took the unusual step of requesting an apology from a competitor, asking “Fox & Friends” to retract a report that the Times was to blame for the 2015 escape of an ISIS leader. Fox subsequently updated the story on its website with the NYT letter. [Continue reading…]

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An operation to sabotage North Korea’s missile program

The New York Times reports: When a North Korean missile test went awry on Sunday, blowing up seconds after liftoff, there were immediate suspicions that a United States program to sabotage the test flights had struck again. The odds seem highly likely: Eighty-eight percent of the launches of the North’s most threatening missiles have self-destructed since the covert American program was accelerated three years ago.

But even inside the United States Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, where the operation is centered, it is nearly impossible to tell if any individual launch is the victim of a new, innovative approach to foil North Korean missiles with cyber and electronic strikes.

Bad welding, bad parts, bad engineering and bad luck can all play a role in such failures — as it did in the United States’ own missile program, particularly in its early days. And it would require a near impossible degree of forensic investigation to figure out an exact cause, given that the failed North Korean missiles tend to explode, disintegrate in midair and plunge in fragments into faraway seas.

But this much is clear, experts say: The existence of the American program, and whatever it has contributed to North Korea’s remarkable string of troubles, appears to have shaken Pyongyang and led to an internal spyhunt as well as innovative ways to defeat a wide array of enemy cyberstrikes. [Continue reading…]

The same New York Times reporters covered this program in a report published on March 4. Then and now, it’s hard to tell whether these are reports about the sabotage program or elements of the program itself.

Following the March report, Markus Schiller and Peter Hayes wrote:

The New York Times article hearkens back to the movie “Independence Day”, where the world is saved from the Alien invasion by simply planting a computer virus into the mothership’s main computer by somehow just sending it over with a standard laptop. This might work in movies, but not in reality.

Perhaps the more interesting story is who leaked to the New York Times the claims of the efficacy of cyber attacks on North Korea’s missiles and why now? We wonder if it is part of a policy battle in the course of the Trump Administration’s North Korea policy review, possibly designed to get President Trump’s attention. It might also be an intentional effort to conduct psychological warfare against the DPRK by creating paranoia and purges within the DPRK missile program. It might also be a way to impress allies and third parties that the United States has been doing more behind the scenes than patiently waiting for the DPRK threat to resolve itself and imposing ineffectual sanctions. We don’t know.

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Trump, Russia, and the news story that wasn’t

Liz Spayd, Public Editor for the New York Times, writes: Late fall was a frantic period for New York Times reporters covering the country’s secretive national security apparatus. Working sources at the F.B.I., the C.I.A., Capitol Hill and various intelligence agencies, the team chased several bizarre but provocative leads that, if true, could upend the presidential race. The most serious question raised by the material was this: Did a covert connection exist between Donald Trump and Russian officials trying to influence an American election?

One vein of reporting centered on a possible channel of communication between a Trump organization computer server and a Russian bank with ties to Vladimir Putin. Another source was offering The Times salacious material describing an odd cross-continental dance between Trump and Moscow. The most damning claim was that Trump was aware of Russia’s efforts to hack Democratic computers, an allegation with implications of treason. Reporters Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers led the effort, aided by others.

Conversations over what to publish were prolonged and lively, involving Washington and New York, and often including the executive editor, Dean Baquet. If the allegations were true, it was a huge story. If false, they could damage The Times’s reputation. With doubts about the material and with the F.B.I. discouraging publication, editors decided to hold their fire.

But was that the right decision? Was there a way to write about some of these allegations using sound journalistic principles but still surfacing the investigation and important leads? Eventually, The Times did just that, but only after other news outlets had gone first.

I have spoken privately with several journalists involved in the reporting last fall, and I believe a strong case can be made that The Times was too timid in its decisions not to publish the material it had. [Continue reading…]

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No, Trump, we can’t just get along

Charles M Blow writes: Donald Trump schlepped across town on Tuesday to meet with the publisher of The New York Times and some editors, columnists and reporters at the paper.

As The Times reported, Trump actually seemed to soften some of his positions:

He seemed to indicate that he wouldn’t seek to prosecute Hillary Clinton. But he should never have said that he was going to do that in the first place.

He seemed to indicate that he wouldn’t encourage the military to use torture. But he should never have said that he would do that in the first place.

He said that he would have an “open mind” on climate change. But that should always have been his position.

You don’t get a pat on the back for ratcheting down from rabid after exploiting that very radicalism to your advantage. Unrepentant opportunism belies a staggering lack of character and caring that can’t simply be vanquished from memory. You did real harm to this country and many of its citizens, and I will never — never — forget that. [Continue reading…]

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A muted alarm bell over Russian election hacking

Liz Spayd, Public Editor for the New York Times, writes: Last winter, as primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire headed to the polls, a covert and cunning Russian plot was underway to disrupt the American political process. With aliases like Guccifer 2.0 and Fancy Bear, Russian hackers were targeting critical computer systems.

In June, they struck, hitting the Democratic Party, and by July its chairman was ousted in the fallout. Soon embarrassing emails were spilling from the computers of Hillary Clinton and her staff. Republican officials were hit, too. So was the National Security Agency. Now, hackers are meddling with the voting systems in several states, leaving local officials on high alert. Come Election Day, they’ll find out what, if anything, the cyberspies have in store.

This is an act of foreign interference in an American election on a scale we’ve never seen, yet on most days it has been the also-ran of media coverage, including at The New York Times.

The emails themselves — exposing the underside of the Democratic political machinery, and the conflicts, misjudgments and embarrassing communications of its top ranks — have received bountiful attention. What rarely makes the main narrative is the spy-versus-spy cyberwarfare: the tactics, the players and the government efforts to tame it. In a calamitous campaign unlike any in memory, it’s not surprising that other story lines get squeezed out. But one of the most chilling chapters of this election is the role of Russian intelligence and the growing threat of digital espionage. With days to go, readers have been shortchanged on this part of history. [Continue reading…]

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New York Times scoffs at Trump’s libel threat — says he suffers from a reputation of his own making

In response to the threat of a lawsuit coming from Donald Trump’s legal team, the New York Times VP and Assistant General Counsel David McCraw explained why the newspaper has no intention of retracting its recent report, Two Women Say Donald Trump Touched Them Inappropriately:

Dear Mr. Kasowitz:

I write in response to your letter of October 12, 2016 to Dean Baquet concerning your client Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for President of the United States. You write concerning our article “Two Women Say Donald Trump Touched Them Inappropriately” and label the article as “libel per se.” You ask that we “remove it from [our] website, and issue a full and immediate retraction and apology.” We decline to do so.

The essence of a libel claim, of course, is the protection of one’s reputation. Mr. Trump has bragged about this non-consensual sexual touching of women. He has bragged about intruding on beauty pageant contestants in their dressing rooms. He acquiesced to a radio host’s request to discuss Mr. Trump’s own daughter as a “piece of ass.” Multiple women not mentioned in our article have publicly come forward to report on Mr. Trump’s unwanted advances. Nothing in our article has had the slights effect on the reputation that Mr. Trump, through his own words and actions, has already created for himself.

But there is a larger and much more important point here. The women quoted in our story spoke out on an issue of national importance – indeed, as an issue that Mr. Trump himself discussed with the whole nation watching during Sunday night’s presidential debate. Our reporters diligently worked to confirm the women’s accounts. They provided readers with Mr. Trump’s response, including his forceful denial of the women’s reports. It would have been a disservice not just to our readers but to democracy itself to silence their voices. We did what the law allows: We published newsworthy information about a subject of deep public concern. If Mr. Trump disagrees, if he believes that American citizens had no right to hear what these women had to say and that the law of this country forces us and those who would dare to criticize him to stand silent or be punished, we welcome the opportunity to have a court set him straight.

Sincerely,

David E. McCraw

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Trump tax records obtained by NYT reveal he could have avoided paying taxes for nearly two decades

The New York Times reports: Donald J. Trump declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns, a tax deduction so substantial it could have allowed him to legally avoid paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years, records obtained by The New York Times show.

The 1995 tax records, never before disclosed, reveal the extraordinary tax benefits that Mr. Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, derived from the financial wreckage he left behind in the early 1990s through mismanagement of three Atlantic City casinos, his ill-fated foray into the airline business and his ill-timed purchase of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.

Tax experts hired by The Times to analyze Mr. Trump’s 1995 records said that tax rules especially advantageous to wealthy filers would have allowed Mr. Trump to use his $916 million loss to cancel out an equivalent amount of taxable income over an 18-year period. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: Dean Baquet wasn’t bluffing.

The New York Times executive editor said during a visit to Harvard in September that he would risk jail to publish Donald Trump’s tax returns. He made good on his word Saturday night when the Times published Trump tax documents from 1995, which show the Republican presidential nominee claimed losses of $916 million that year — enough to avoid paying federal income taxes for as many as 18 years afterward.

Federal law makes it illegal to publish an unauthorized tax return: [Continue reading…]

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How to report on lying

Peter Beinart writes: Last Saturday, The New York Times published an extraordinary story. What made the story extraordinary wasn’t the event the Times covered. What made it extraordinary was the way the Times covered it.

On its front page, top right — the most precious space in American print journalism — the Times wrote about Friday’s press conference in which Donald Trump declared that a) he now believed Barack Obama was a US citizen, b) he deserved credit for having established that fact despite rumors to the contrary and c) Hillary Clinton was to blame for the rumors. Traditionally, when a political candidate assembles facts so as to aggrandize himself and belittle his opponent, “objective” journalists like those at the Times respond with a “he said, she said” story.

Such stories, according to the NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, follow this formula: “There’s a public dispute. The dispute makes news. No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story … The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.” [Continue reading…]

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FBI investigates whether Russia hacked New York Times reporters

The Associated Press reports: The FBI is investigating cyber intrusions targeting reporters of the New York Times and is looking into whether Russian intelligence agencies are responsible for the acts, a US official said Tuesday.

The cyberattacks are believed to have targeted individual reporters, but investigators don’t believe the newspaper’s entire network was compromised, according to the official, who was briefed on the investigation but was not authorized to discuss the matter by name and spoke on condition of anonymity.

CNN first reported the FBI’s investigation.

It was not immediately clear how many reporters may have been affected, nor how many email accounts were targeted. [Continue reading…]

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How the New York Times Magazine botched its Iran story

Joe Cirincione writes: A devious president and his top aides trick the nation into a dangerous foreign entanglement with the help of a gullible press corps and complicit experts. George W. Bush and war with Iraq? No, Barack Obama and diplomacy with Iran. At least according to David Samuels’ telling in an instantly controversial article for this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about White House adviser Ben Rhodes.

Rhodes, whom I know, is very talented, but he is no modern-day Rasputin casting a spell over Obama, the press and public. The truth is that Samuels used his access to Rhodes to attack a deal he never liked and publicly campaigned against.

In his article, Samuels claims Obama was “actively misleading” the public about Iran. He says the president made up a story of how the 2013 election of pragmatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani created a new opening with Iran. This, so Obama could win “broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime.” This, in turn, claims Samuels, allowed Obama to avoid a “divisive but clarifying debate of the actual policy choices” and eliminate the “fuss about Iran’s nuclear program” so that Obama could pursue his real agenda: “a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.”

Every element of this thesis falls apart under scrutiny.

Obama did not mislead the public about negotiations with Iran. Most of the talks the United States held with Iran under the previous, hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were widely reported. Even the secret talks that opened up the engagement with the more pragmatic Rouhani government were disclosed by the dogged reporting of Laura Rozen and others well before the congressional vote last year. And the imagined plot to sell out our Middle East allies to Iran is a common talking point of the far right, without any supporting evidence.

But one of Samuels’ biggest fallacies is his claim that the world’s leading nuclear policy and national security experts were duped by Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser whom Samuels portrays as a digital Machiavelli spinning gullible reporters and compliant experts into accepting a bad deal.

Samuels says this is the only way to explain “the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal.” He claims that in the spring of 2015, “legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters.”

This is utter nonsense.

In London, Paris, Berlin and Washington the deal was evaluated on its merits, not on spin. Nor did we wait for the White House to fire the starting gun. Ploughshares Fund, the group I head, began our campaign to shut down Iran’s paths to a bomb six years ago. We helped fund a network of experts, advocates, faith leaders, military leaders and diplomats who trade views and coordinate efforts.

Samuels takes a swipe at our work directly, quoting Rhodes as saying, “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this. … We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else.” [Continue reading…]

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How an Obama adviser got played by a freelance writer with an agenda

Fred Kaplan writes: About a week ago, I told a friend that I didn’t understand how people like Ben Rhodes — who’s been working as deputy national security adviser since President Obama’s first day in the White House — could stand the nonstop pressure without going crazy. Then came David Samuels’ profile of Rhodes in the New York Times Magazine, and I wondered if he’d gone nuts after all.

The piece quotes Rhodes as ragging on the press corps (27-year-olds who “literally know nothing” other than political campaigns) and the foreign policy establishment (“the Blob”); boasting of how he manipulated reporters and commentators on the Iran nuclear deal (“We created an echo chamber,” with reporters “saying things that validated what we had given them to say”); and boosting his own status considerably (“I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends”).

Why was an experienced operator like Rhodes saying these things to a reporter on the record? And does he believe what he was saying?

It’s a very strange article all round. Samuels presents Rhodes — a 38-year-old, erstwhile aspiring novelist — as “the Boy Wonder of the Obama White House,” “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy” besides the president himself, “the voice in which America speaks to the world.” The story’s headline hails Rhodes still more dramatically as “Obama’s foreign-policy guru” who “rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age.”

Many have commented on the article as a fascinating, if gruesome portrait of how power works and how official narratives are woven in the age of Obama and social media. It is all that, but not entirely in the way that many bloggers and tweeters have inferred. It struck me as interesting in two ways: first, as a story of a senior staffer who has been hunkered down in a windowless West Wing office for too long; second, as the story of a freelance writer — David Samuels, the author of this piece — who has an ideological agenda to push and who hides it by hyping the importance of the man he’s profiling. [Continue reading…]

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‘All the News We Didn’t Print’: Anonymous group distributes parody New York Times — updated

Update from Salon: Jewish Voice for Peace — New York and Jews Say No! informed Salon that they had organized the protest. The former is the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, or JVP, an American human rights and social justice organization that challenges the Israeli government’s continued violence against and oppression of the indigenous Palestinian people. Jews Say No! is a New York City-based peace group that, like JVP, protests Israel’s illegal 48-year occupation of the Palestinian territories and periodic heavy bombing of Gaza.

nyt-parody

Haaretz reports: An unidentified group claiming that the New York Times is guilty of bias against the Palestinians and in favor of Israel distributed a fake version of the daily newspaper with parodied content more to the group’s liking in Manhattan on Tuesday.

The mock newspaper, which is also available online and has its own Twitter account, is represented as an effort at reconsidering the Times’ coverage of Israel and the Palestinians over the past year. Presented in a design strikingly similar to the Times itself, the online version of the “supplement” is labeled “Rethinking Our 2015 Coverage on Israel-Palestine.” [Continue reading…]

To call this a “fake” edition is to imply it was intended to deceive readers into thinking it was the real thing. I doubt that was the intention of the producers; neither is it likely that many recipients of a free copy of the print edition failed to notice that stories such as Hillary Clinton’s departure from the presidential race were fictitious — especially since they actually referred to her as “Hilarity Clifton.”

If this is a piece of activism, why the anonymity? And why spend this amount of money on a stunt that will garner public attention for less than 48 hours?

Since The Yes Men did something very similar in 2008, some observers suggest they might be behind the current undertaking. Just as likely, they merely provided a model for imitation.

If triggering editorial reform in the newspaper was actually the goal, I would have thought a steady stream of genuine letters to the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, might actually be more productive — even if they never yielded a news event.

Moreover, to characterize this stunt as “pro-Palestinian” sounds dubious. Among the range of issues confronting Palestinians, biased reporting in the New York Times probably doesn’t rank among their most pressing concerns.

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Experts slam New York Times for ‘gullible’ puff piece on ‘amazing’ Kochs

Joe Romm writes: The New York Times published a fawning front-page profile of the Koch brothers last Friday. The article never mentions their efforts to secure unfettered fossil fuel consumption, which would destroy humanity’s livable climate. It was quickly criticized by leading experts as “poor journalism” and “gullible.”

The Times wants you to believe that the Kochs are “very private” but “brave,” that they are “sensitive to criticism,” and that “Charles [Koch] obviously is a classical liberal, who believes in the Bill of Rights.” What’s next for the Times — rehabbing the misunderstand Bernie Madoff?

This 1300-word piece never once mentions the Koch’s insidious efforts to fund climate science denial, block all climate action, and roll back clean energy standards at a state level. The Koch’s belief in the First Amendment extends to being the leading funder in the world of efforts to spread disinformation, smear and harass climate scientists, and generally destroy any honest national discussion of how to spare Americans and billions of people worldwide needless misery for centuries to come. Any classical liberal would do the same. [Continue reading…]

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Free speech vs. hate speech

An editorial in the New York Times says: There is no question that images ridiculing religion, however offensive they may be to believers, qualify as protected free speech in the United States and most Western democracies. There is also no question that however offensive the images, they do not justify murder, and that it is incumbent on leaders of all religious faiths to make this clear to their followers.

But it is equally clear that the Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest in Garland, Tex., was not really about free speech. It was an exercise in bigotry and hatred posing as a blow for freedom.

That distinction is critical because the conflicts that have erupted over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, most notably the massacre of staff members at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January by two Muslim brothers, have generated a furious and often confused debate about free speech versus hate speech. The current dispute at the American chapter of the PEN literary organization over its selection of Charlie Hebdo for a freedom of expression courage award is a case in point — hundreds of PEN’s members have opposed the selection for “valorizing selectively offensive material.”

Charlie Hebdo is a publication whose stock in trade has always been graphic satires of politicians and religions, whether Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. By contrast, Pamela Geller, the anti-Islam campaigner behind the Texas event, has a long history of declarations and actions motivated purely by hatred for Muslims.

Whether fighting against a planned mosque near ground zero, posting to her venomous blog Atlas Shrugs or organizing the event in Garland, Ms. Geller revels in assailing Islam in terms reminiscent of virulent racism or anti-Semitism. She achieved her provocative goal in Garland — the event was attacked by two Muslims who were shot to death by a traffic officer before they could kill anyone.

Those two men were would-be murderers. But their thwarted attack, or the murderous rampage of the Charlie Hebdo killers, or even the greater threat posed by the barbaric killers of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, cannot justify blatantly Islamophobic provocations like the Garland event. These can serve only to exacerbate tensions and to give extremists more fuel.

Some of those who draw cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad may earnestly believe that they are striking a blow for freedom of expression, though it is hard to see how that goal is advanced by inflicting deliberate anguish on millions of devout Muslims who have nothing to do with terrorism. As for the Garland event, to pretend that it was motivated by anything other than hate is simply hogwash.

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What to keep secret in a secret war

Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor for the New York Times, writes: If you were reading the two sentences by themselves, you might be surprised they appeared in the same newspaper.

One suggested a news organization that is tough-minded, calling its own shots about acceding to government requests for secrecy. It appeared in an article about whether the C.I.A.’s drone-strike program is properly monitored by Congress. The story named the program’s architect, Michael D’Andrea.

“The C.I.A. asked that Mr. D’Andrea’s name and the names of some other top agency officials be withheld from this article,” it said, “but The New York Times is publishing them because they have leadership roles in one of the government’s most significant paramilitary programs and their roles are known to foreign governments and many others.”

The other sentence suggested, by contrast, a news organization that provides anonymous cover for government officials touting the merits of their underexamined war. It appeared in an article on the effectiveness of the drone program, based partly on interviews with American officials. One of them was quoted anonymously: “‘Core Al Qaeda is a rump of its former self,’ said an American counterterrorism official, in an assessment echoed by several European and Pakistani officials.”

As The Times covered the recent unintended deaths of two Western hostages in a drone strike, a split personality was on view.

In many ways, the coverage has been remarkable for straightforward truth-telling.

A front-page news analysis by Scott Shane, for example, included this memorable paragraph, not in a quote but in the author’s own voice: “Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.” (Mr. Shane’s knowledge comes in part from his book, due for September publication, on the 2011 drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam.)

But in other ways, drone coverage is still lacking in skepticism about government claims on classified killings — something I criticized in 2012. [Continue reading…]

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Why the New York Times named names in CIA drone story

Michael Calderone reports: The New York Times reported across the top of Sunday’s front page that Congress is doing little to oversee the CIA’s targeted killing program. In the process, the paper identified three high-ranking CIA officials with key roles in secret drone operations.

The CIA asked the Times to withhold the names in its report, a request that executive editor Dean Baquet told The Huffington Post on Monday that he took seriously, but decided not to honor.

Baquet said the officials are not undercover agents carrying out clandestine operations in the field, but rather figures with significant roles in “one of the major issues in modern American warfare.” The CIA is now playing a “quasi-military role” through the drone program, a departure from its traditional functions that deserves scrutiny. In order to debate the program, he said, the public needs to know who is making key decisions. In addition, as the Times wrote in its article, the CIA officials’ “roles are known to foreign governments and many others.”

“It would have been weird to not name the guys who run it,” Baquet said. “They’re not undercover. They’re not unknown. They’re sort of widely known.”

A CIA spokesman declined to comment to The Huffington Post.

Baquet’s decision shows the news organization’s increasing willingness to push back against government requests to withhold information, unless officials provide specific reasons why doing so may damage national security. [Continue reading…]

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Thomas Erdbrink — ‘Our man in Tehran’ (parts 2 & 3)

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New York Times: Our man in Tehran

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NYT reporters parrot unsubstantiated statements from U.S. counterterrorism officials. What’s new?

A report in the New York Times claims in its opening paragraph:

The younger of the two brothers who killed 12 people in Paris last week most likely used his older brother’s passport in 2011 to travel to Yemen, where he received training and $20,000 from Al Qaeda’s affiliate there, presumably to finance attacks when he returned home to France.

The source of that information is presumably the American counterterrorism officials referred to in the second paragraph.

Reporters Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, too busy scribbling their notes, apparently didn’t bother asking these officials how they identified the money trail.

That’s an important question, because an alternative money trail has already been reported that has no apparent connection to AQAP.

French media have reported that Amedy Coulibaly — who in a video declared his affiliation with ISIS — purchased the weapons, used both by him and the Kouachi brothers, from an arms dealer in Brussels and that he paid for these with:

a standard loan of 6,000 euros ($7,050) that Coulibaly took out on December 4 from the French financial-services firm Cofidis. He used his real name but falsely stated his monthly income on the loan declaration, a statement the company didn’t bother to check, the reports say.

Whereas the New York Times reports receipt of the money and its amount as fact, CNN — no doubt briefed by the same officials — makes it somewhat clearer that this information is quite speculative:

U.S. officials have told CNN it’s believed that when Cherif Kouachi traveled to Yemen in 2011, he returned carrying money from AQAP earmarked to carry out the attack. Investigators said the terrorist group could have given as much as $20,000, but the exact amount has not been verified. [Emphasis mine.]

This isn’t a money trail — it’s speculation. And even if AQAP did put up some seed capital, that was four years ago. In the intervening period, the gunmen seem to have been busy engaged in their own entrepreneurial efforts:

Former drug-dealing associates of Coulibaly told AP he was selling marijuana and hashish in the Paris suburbs as recently as a month ago. Multiple French news accounts have said the Kouachi brothers sold knockoff sporting goods made in China.

Another gaping hole in the NYT report is its failure to analyze the AQAP videos — there were two.

The first video, released on January 9, praised the attacks but made no claim of responsibility. Were its makers restrained by their own modesty? The second video, which does claim that AQAP funded and directed the operation, provides no evidence to support these claims.

The top spokesman for the Yemen branch of al-Qaida publicly took credit Wednesday for the bloody attack on a French satirical newspaper, confirming a statement that had been emailed to reporters last week.

But the 11-minute video provided no hard evidence for its claims, including that the operation had been arranged by the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki directly with the two brothers who carried it out before Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011.

The video includes frames showing Awlaki but none of him with the brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, nor any images of the Kouachis that haven’t been shown on Western news broadcasts for days.

So it seems premature for the New York Times to start talking about how the attacks might:

serve as a reminder of the continued danger from the group [AQAP] at a time when much of the attention of Europe and the United States has shifted to the Islamic State, the militant organization that controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq and has become notorious for beheading hostages.

The NYT report also makes a claim that I have not seen elsewhere:

In repeated statements before they were killed by the police, the Kouachi brothers said they had carried out the attack on behalf of the Qaeda branch in Yemen, saying it was in part to avenge the death of Mr. Awlaki.

Are we to suppose that Awlaki was funding an operation to avenge his own death before he had been killed?

Based on the information that has been reported so far — and obviously, new information might significantly change this picture — the evidence seems to lean fairly strongly in the direction that the Paris attacks should be seen to have been inspired rather than directed by Al Qaeda.

And to the extent that Anwar al-Awlaki played a pivotal role in these attacks, the lesson — a lesson that should be reflected on by President Obama and the commanders of future drone strikes — is that Awlaki’s capacity to inspire terrorist attacks seems to be just as strong now as it was when he was alive.

Indeed, the mixed messages coming from AQAP might reflect an internal debate on whether it can wield more power as an inspirational force or alternatively needs to sustain the perception that it retains control over operations carried out in its name.

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