The Privileges Waging a “War” on Terror Thereby Accords AQAP

“Hey, William Shirer? It’s J. Edgar here. I think you’re disgusting for reporting from Nazi Germany.”

Actually, I have no idea what J. Edgar Hoover thought of William Shirer’s reporting from Nazi Germany. I don’t even know whether Hoover ever spoke to Shirer. But I’m trying to imagine what it would feel like for the FBI Director to publicly call out one of the most invaluable journalists — and after that, historians — during World War II and tell him his work was disgusting.

It’s an image conjured up by this Jack Goldsmith response to my earlier post on Jim Comey’s suggestion that the NYT was “disgusting” for giving an AQAP member anonymity to clarify which Parisian terrorists they have ties with and with they do not.

Marcy Wheeler implies that Comey here “bullies” the NYT.   No, he criticized it and “urge[d]” it to “reconsider.”  He made no threat whatsoever, and he had no basis to make one.  That is not bullying.   Wheeler is on stronger ground in pointing out that the USG speaks to the press through anonymous sources all the time, including in its claims about civilian casualties in drone strikes.  I don’t like press reliance on anonymous sources.  But I also don’t think that the U.S. government and its enemy in war, AQAP, are on the same footing, or should be treated the same way in NYT news coverage.  (Imagine if the NYT said: “A source in the child exploitation ring told the New York Times on condition of anonymity that his group was responsible for three of the child kidnappings but had nothing to with the fourth.”)  The NYT appears to think they are on the same footing and should be treated the same when it comes to anonymous sources.  Comey disagrees, and there is nothing wrong with him saying so publicly.  The press is immune from many things, but not from criticism, including by the government.

For what it’s worth, I actually can imagine it might be incredibly important for a newspaper to give criminals anonymity to say something like this, particularly if the newspaper could vet it. It might well save lives by alerting cops they were looking for two child exploitation rings, not one. As with the NYT quote, which alerts authorities that the threat is a lot more nebulous than declaring it AQAP might make it seem.

Yet Goldsmith is involved in a category error by comparing AQAP to a gang. Sure, they are thuggish and gang-like (albeit less powerful than some Mexican cartels).

But the US does not consider them a gang. It considers them, legally, an adversary in war (just ask Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed based on such an assertion). And there is a very long and noble history of journalists reporting from both sides in time of war, through whatever means (though as with Shirer, the journalists ultimately need to judge whether they’re still able to do independent reporting). Indeed, having journalists who could make some claim to neutrality has been fundamentally important to get closer to real understanding. More recently, Peter Bergen’s reporting — including his secure meeting with Osama bin Laden — was crucially important to US understanding after 9/11, when few knew anything about bin Laden.

And the logic behind giving an AQAP source anonymity — and secure communications — is particularly powerful given that the US shows no respect for journalists’ (or human rights workers’ or lawyers’) communications in its spying. Nor does it consider anyone “in” a terrorist group, whether they be propagandists, cooks, or drivers, illegitimate for targeting purposes. Thus, any non-secure communication can easily lead immediately to drone killing. But killing this one guy talking to NYT, however much that might make Jim Comey feel good, is not going to solve the problem of Muslims in the west choosing to declare allegiance to one or another Islamic extremist group before they go on a killing spree. Hell, if some of the claims floating around are correct, killing Awlaki hasn’t even diminished his ability to inspire murder.

In the case of Yemen (or Pakistan, or Somalia, or Syria) in particular, just speaking to a journalist can put someone in grave danger. For example, I’ve long wondered whether problematizing the US government claims about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in Jeremy Scahill’s book made Mullah Zabara, who at least accepted AQAP’s role in his province, a target for assassination. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to him (and Scahill) for revealing Abdulmutallab was staying at Fahd al-Quso’s farm, which presented a critical counter detail to some of the government’s claims accepted credulously in the press.

The US government and the US public is far, far too ignorant about the people we’re fighting. A little better insight into their views would help us all. If journalists have to use secure communications and extend anonymity to get that — and ethically, there may be little else they can do — then they should do that.

We are not winning this conflict, and we won’t win it, so long as we try to criminalize the adversary’s propaganda rather than offer a more compelling ideology than they are to those they’re successfully recruiting. And this urge for someone as powerful as Jim Comey to get snitty when the NYT reports not ideology, but information, from AQAP reveals nothing more than an impotence to wage that ideological battle.

15 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    Absolutely. He can’t compete on substance (ideology), so he just kills them. I await the day (coming soon, inevitably) when technology provides “the terrorists” with the same capability to kill us at will, on our home ground, that we do them. Then, will the anticipatory killing of the propagandists, cooks and drivers, end?

    On a lighter note, I recall that last week’s Trash Talk urged all to “Put Down The Duckie”, and sure enough, the Ducks were put down. Who, bmaz, will you be jinxing this week?

  2. Ronald says:

    Thanks for this, Marcie, and of course your previous on the same topic. It so good to see someone clearly and ably stand up to administration bullying.
    My own hobby horse.
    How did Comey get to be AG?
    Another example of O’s malevolence.
    The underlying assumption of your pieces seems to be: the US, though it does bad things, like kill people with no due process, is essentially fighting a war as best it knows how.
    I guess I’ll have to wait awhile until you get to my view that the US has been since at least the Clinton years (WTC 93, Oklahoma City, and etc) instigating the “war on terror” as a replacement for the Soviet Union. Wasn’t it Cheney who said: What are we gonna do now?
    Meanwhile thanks again for your lonely beacon.

    • galljdaj says:

      Its easy to agree with your ‘points’, and there are many more such points! And I agree with bringing back, and Publishing those White Papers of the PNAC that the gang of War Criminals published in the 1990’s, so that the American Peoples can read and understand just how much they have been lied to!

    • Kathleen says:

      Ronald “U.S. fighting a war as best it knows how” Like creating ungoverned spaces in Iraq, Libya, Syria etc. Creating extreme levels of chaos, death and destruction. Unless somehow that is the intent

    • jerryy says:

      You could push that idea back a bit further before President Clinton if you wish. It was President Reagan that warned of the dangerous Sandinistan hordes ready to pour over our southern borders and wipe us out — despite the number of countries between us and them. That whole Iran-Contra thing.
      Actually, some often being up the idea that we have been that way since shortly after we got going as a country.

  3. ks says:

    My first reaction was, “Who’s Jack Goldsmith?” It’s fascinating that the internet is still a place where the shine on your credentials doesn’t get you as far as the quality of your posts.

    Goldsmith is certainly right in referring to the “US government and its enemy in war.” The rest of us are left right out of it, aside from writing the checks and finding ourselves in harm’s way from time to time. If we could rename the non-existent WOT the ‘Resource Wars’, maybe even academic fantasists with authoritarian leanings would realize that, if there is a winning side, very few of us will be on it.

  4. scribe says:

    EW, fine post as usual but you omit one crucial point. To be fair, you’re in good company omitting it but that doesn’t make the omission any less glaring, nor less important.
    When Jim Comey, or any FBI Director for that matter, bitches about the press transgressing some invisible line, he’s explicitly inviting all his minions in the FBI (and elsewhere in “law enforcement” who might be looking to curry favor with the FBI) to target the NYT for retribution of the kind law enforcement can deal out. No one seems to be talking about that. He’s putting a big bulls-eye on the NYT for doing its job.
    The twitter feed here noted the arrest of a TV analyst on a soliciting charge ( ). Now, this is not to say that the defendant in that case did (or did not) offend “law enforcement” in some manner. But he did get charged in the ultimate “he said-she said” kind of case, got splayed across the web (permanently there, too) and will probably be out of work for a while. If one were to look around, one could easily find cases where crooked (or power-hungry) prosecutors set up judges who had the temerity to rule against them, just to get them out of the way and pour encourager les autres. And it’s a given that one of the first things that happens to people who witness/complain about police beating/killing someone is to charge them with a crime (see, e.g., Mrs. Garner…), usually one involving lying (very useful for cross-examination in the rare event the killer cop gets charged with something and the witness testifies).
    Given Holder’s DoJ’s sudden love for the misprision statute, it’s not beyond the pale to believe Comey’s minions are militating for just such a charge against someone in the NYT for printing something with info from “the other side”, when “the other side” is considered to have transgressed the law.
    So, I guess, we should give a bit of credit to the NYT, overall-lame as their behavior has been so far, for actually having the balls to go with what they printed. And hope they start burning the bullshitters.

  5. Peterr says:

    Nor does it [the US Govt] consider anyone “in” a terrorist group, whether they be propagandists, cooks, or drivers, illegitimate for targeting purposes.

    It’s not much of a step for the government to declare a reporter who talks with enemy sources a propagandist for that enemy, and thus put them “in” the terrorist group . . . with all the ugly consequences that follow.
    To borrow Comey’s languge, the line between “allowing your newspaper to be used by” terrorists and becoming part of the terrorist group is very, very narrow, making scribe’s observations that much more cogent. Knowingly allowing your car to be used in a bank robbery is commonly called being an accomplice, and if someone is killed in the course of that robbery, you’re an accomplice to murder.

    • bevin says:

      “It’s not much of a step for the government to declare a reporter who talks with enemy sources a propagandist for that enemy, and thus put them “in” the terrorist group . . . with all the ugly consequences that follow”

      Precisely the justification Israel gave last year for targeting, and killing, 17 journalists. The IDF spokesperson said, in effect, cameras and word processors are just as much weapons of war as bombs and guns. The Israelis continually plunge deeper into the depths of corruption and the US follows eagerly, tossing around Israel’s fascistic rationales like a puppy with a fresh bone.

  6. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    A big congrats to you Marcy, on the basis of Gandhi’s, “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”, it seems you may be about to win.
    Jack Goldsmith, is hardly an independent voice when it comes to Comey. They’re old associates.
    And Comey may even have asked Goldmith to defend him against your criticism.
    Which to me says Comey is now at stage 3, and fighting you. Keep going for the win!
    And your comments are spot on, and I might even go one step further and suggest all sources should be heard rather than just high profile ones as it is sometimes really surprising how much is known by those who appear to be inconsequential by-standers.
    Unfortunately, as Scribe points out, the Powerful are vindictive and the little folks know retribution is very likely if they speak out and contradict the Powerful’s message.
    Which makes what you do all the more awesome.!!

  7. phred says:

    Goldsmith’s defense is laughable for the simple reason that when Comey complains it isn’t heard as that of a common citizen, but as a statement from the head of the FBI, our premier federal law enforcement agency. This begs the question, how it is possible that since there can be made “no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”, that our chief federal law enforcement officer is unaware of this fact.
    One would think that attacking a free press, especially one as dutiful to the federal government as the NY Times, ought to call into question Comey’s fitness for his office (as scribe so perfectly explains). But no, his old pal Goldsmith rides to his defense.
    To be fair to Goldsmith, perhaps he is just a bit tetchy about the use of “bullies”. Undoubtedly, he still considers himself and Comey to be choir boys compared to the bullies of his own experience: Gonzales, Card, Cheney, and Addington.
    As our own legal voices here at the Wheelhouse observed at the time, it is unlikely that history will remember Comey and Goldsmith as choir boys riding to the defense of their country, but rather as self-serving ass-coverers fretting over their own legal jeopardy. So it’s not so surprising then to see Goldsmith back in ass-covering mode.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Bill Keller’s successor at the Times, no doubt, also checked with the administration before editing and printing this story, so other than public posturing, it’s hard to see what Mr. Comey’s problem is (unless he’s out of the loop in this administration, too).

  9. Kathleen says:

    Talking about the New York Bloody Times for heavens sake. The paper that totally promoted the Bush administration WMD lies. Judy “I was fucking right” Miller’s lying pieces were put on the front pages of that rag. Goldsmith referring to “child exploitation rings” The New York Bloody Times , publisher, editors, reporters who promoted the Iraq invasion should be hauled in front of the Hague along with those who created, cherry picked and disseminated those WMD’s in Iraq lies. Goldsmith talks about the Times as some premiere news outlet. Sickening

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