Calling the C-Word the C-Word

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Three cheers for Dennis Pluchinsky. These days, too many people who would squelch reporting and expression couch their threats in mealymouthed terms — "watch what you say," and so on — so as to avoid being accused of favoring censorship. Not so Pluchinsky, a State Department analyst who has studied terroism for the past 25 years. Writing in the Washington Post Sunday, Pluchinsky accuses the U.S. media of "treason" for reporting in detail on infrastructure and government weaknesses that make the country vulnerable to terrorists. These reports, he says, are easily available for terrorists to peruse and exploit. And he doesn't mince words about his solution: "This type of reporting — carrying specifics about U.S. vulnerabilities — must be stopped or censored."

You've got to admire a man who's willing to call the c-word the c-word, though his candor is not likely to win him many friends in the media. The knee-jerk journalistic reaction is to call Pluchinsky an alarmist, to say that reports in the press give no aid to terrorists that they don't already have. Considering the man's quarter-century of experience, that would be arrogant. But for his own part, Pluchinsky doesn't seem to have thought much about the utility of a free press at all. Puzzling over post-9/11 terrorism coverage of our terror vulnerabilities, he writes, "I do not understand the media's agenda here."

Let me try to explain it. A large part of that agenda, idealism aside, is to stay alive. The bulk of the journalists with the highest profile in covering the war on terrorism — and its occasional embarrassments — are not just in war zones overseas but in cities like Washington and New York. They rightfully see themselves as potentially the next victims of another large-scale terrorist attack. And Pluchinsky does nothing to counter the argument that aggressive reporting might actually do a thing or two to prevent one.

The basic failure to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks was not that so many of us imagined the possibility, but that so few of us did. In retrospect, the idea that terrorists might use airplanes as flying bombs — and were planning to do so — seems obvious to anyone looking at the pieces of information available before Sept. 11. It evidently didn't occur to the right people in the government, though, or for that matter in the media: a terrorist searching pre-Sept.-11 reporting for that scheme would be out of luck.

The kind of scenario-spinning that the press has engaged in since Sept. 11 can seem like reckless brainstorming. When a journalist suggests that a terrorist might give himself Ebola and spread the disease in public, or blow up one of America's numerous chemical trucks to produce a crude gas attack, it may shock or you or me. But that's because you and I are not soulless murdering bastards. The enemy that wants to kill us consists of people who look at any object they encounter — a truck, an airplane-dinner fork — and think, "How can I use this to kill as many people as possible?"

It flatters journalists to assume they can compete at that game. Look at one of the headlines Pluchinsky considers irresponsible: "Chemical Plants Are Feared As Targets." Can anyone plausibly argue that it never occurred to the folks who perpetrated Sept. 11 to hit a chemical plant?

Pluchinsky's stronger argument is that journalists endanger us when they report on specific vulnerabilities to terrorists or mistakes past terrorists have made. "Al Qaeda terrorists now know to pay a speeding ticket promptly," he writes. "They now know not to pay for things with large amounts of cash. They now know to buy some furniture for their apartments or rooms.... They know now that they should have a phone installed in their apartments or rooms." But he doesn't note that sales clerks, local cops and landlords now know to look for that too. In a war on terrorism that requires tips from an informed public, how else does Pluchinsky suggest getting that information to law-abiding citizens? He doesn't.

More disturbingly, Pluchinsky leaves the method of determining what needs to be censored open-ended. After all, he himself acknowledges that "dangerous" information is sometimes composed of many pieces of information that are in themselves innocuous. In other words, you can't tell from reading an individual story whether it's dangerous or not. So how small does a tidbit of information have to be — a security snafu at the local airport, a photo taken near a nuclear power plant — to escape government scrutiny? (And I'm not exaggerating "goverment scrutiny" for effect; he writes, "It seems reasonable to me that a process should be established where such articles are filtered through a government agency such as the proposed Department of Homeland Security.")

But most unsettling of all, Pluchinsky's attack could let our guardians off the hook for their failures, in ways that are not just self-serving but dangerous. Consider one example he gives: "Abu-Ubayd al-Qurashi, believed to be a close aide to Osama bin Ladin [sic], commenting on the 9/11 operatives, stated that 'the suicide hijackers studied the lives of Palestinian Yehiya Ayash [a Hamas bomb maker who was himself assassinated] and Ramzi Yousef [operational planner of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing] and the security mistakes that led to their downfall while they were preparing for the September 11 operation.' How did al Qaeda know about the security mistakes that led to the death of Ayash and the capture of Yousef? The media, at home and abroad."

It's a chilling passage, but not just for the reasons Pluchinsky argues. The "open sources" of vulnerability reporting he deplores are just that — open. They were available to law-enforcement officials, immigration officials and anyone else responsible for keeping those leaks plugged. It is at best a cop-out to claim that reporting weaknesses helps terrorists exploit them without acknowledging that that reporting also can spur changes in change-resistant bureaucracies.

Ah, but wouldn't it be better if we could make that information available only to the people on our side? Maybe, if we could assume that the folks on our side would act expeditiously and be held accountable, even though they know it won't get out to the public if they don't. (After all, if it's treasonous to report on a vulnerability, it's treasonous to report on someone's failure to correct it.)

This is more or less Pluchinsky's suggestion. He recommends that anyone who spots a potential vulnerability, rather than making it public, should instead report it to the government. "If the department determined that these vulnerabilities indeed existed," he says, "then it could award 'Homeland Security Protective Security' certificates to individuals or 'Homeland Security Gold Stars' to newspaper or Internet sites that put the country first during a time of war."

After issuing the gold star — or perhaps a decorative smiley-face sticker — presumably the government would fix the problem pronto. Problem is, that assumption flies in the face of what we've seen since Sept. 11, let alone before — be it intelligence sharing between the FBI and CIA, getting marshals onto airplanes or expediting the screening of bombs hidden in airplane luggage (an idea which, don't worry, occurred to terrorists long before I wrote it down).

The cynical interpretation is that the gold-star system would provide officials incentive to sweep their failures under the rug, knowing that a press not wishing to be treasonous would never call them on it, or that it would allow officials to label as "dangerous" reports that are merely embarrassing or politically dangerous. And I have no doubt some officials would use it that way, though I doubt that that is why Pluchinsky proposes it. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is not only sincere in his concern but good at and conscientious about his job: that, were a newspaper or other snoop to discover a flaw in our nation's security and bring it to his attention, he would set about to make it right, putting aside any questions of careerism, politics, pride or self-interest to act for the common good.

Pluchinsky seems to assume that every single one would. But a cursory glimpse at the intelligence failures before Sept. 11 and efforts to bolster America's security afterward makes clear that not everyone responsible for safeguarding the nation and its infrastructure is a Dennis Pluchinsky. Too many responsible people in government and industry have shown that nothing short of public exposure and embarrassment will get them to take steps to improve security, if those steps endanger their business, bureaucratic fiefdoms or personal prerogatives.

"What also infuriates me," Pluchinsky writes, "is when the media publish follow-up reports noting that security measures or procedures around a specific target or system still have not been implemented. Not only do the media identify potential target vulnerabilities for the terrorists but they also provide our foes with progress reports!" It never seems to occur to him that, if not for "open sources" of information, those measures might never be implemented, leaving us more vulnerable to terrorists — who, Pluchinsky himself notes, have other ways of finding vulnerabilities besides watching the news.

That is the main lesson of the Coleen Rowley FBI memo, which produced mea culpas and commitments to reform that plainly should have seemed obvious to FBI insiders long before her memo — and that, just as plainly, were not in the offing until she wrote the memo and it broke to the public.

Is Coleen Rowley a traitor? Are the journalists who reported her story? Maybe Pluchinsky would say so. But then what does that make the superiors who ignored her until she wrote it? No doubt many of them would rather she, and the journalists who reported on her complaint, would have quietly handed them her complaint, to be filed away in some bottom drawer, in exchange for a shiny new gold star.