NY Times, AP, USA Today ignored experts' doubts about threat posed by foiled L.A. terror plot

››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

Reporting on President Bush's February 9 account of how the government successfully thwarted a 2002 Al Qaeda plot to crash a hijacked airplane into a Los Angeles skyscraper, numerous media outlets -- including The New York Times, Associated Press, and USA Today -- ignored doubts among counterterrorism officials that the proposed attack ever advanced beyond the initial planning stages and ever posed a serious threat.

Reporting on President Bush's February 9 account of how the government successfully thwarted a 2002 Al Qaeda plot to crash a hijacked airplane into a Los Angeles skyscraper, numerous media outlets -- including The New York Times, Associated Press, and USA Today -- ignored the division within the intelligence community over the severity of the threat posed by the plot and over whether the proposed attack ever advanced beyond the initial planning stages. By contrast, The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times reported challenges to the administration's claims articulated by some intelligence and law enforcement officials.

AP's Deb Riechmann uncritically reported on February 10 that Bush highlighted the terrorist plot, which targeted Los Angeles' Library Tower (since renamed U.S. Bank Tower), to illustrate how the United States, in conjunction with several other nations, "stopped a catastrophic attack on our homeland." USA Today's David Jackson and Richard Benedetto similarly reported on February 10 that Bush used the incident as an example of how "[s]ince Sept. 11, the United States and our coalition partners have disrupted a number of serious al-Qaeda terrorist plots, including plots to attack targets inside the United States."

The February 10 article by New York Times reporters Elisabeth Bumiller and David Johnston cited only counterterrorism officials who initially doubted the severity of the threat but later "conclude[d] that the plot was genuine and potentially serious":

Several American counterterrorism officials said Thursday that, at the time the plot was broken up in early 2002, the authorities believed that they had disrupted an active terrorist planning effort, but that they possessed only fragmentary evidence and were unsure whether the threat was significant.

Only later did they conclude that the plot was genuine and potentially serious. The outline of the plot became clear, the officials said, primarily through the interrogations of captured Qaeda figures like Mr. Mohammed, who was apprehended in March 2003, and Hambali, captured in August 2003.

But as the Post and Los Angeles Times documented, some national security officials and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee still question whether the Al Qaeda plot on Los Angeles ever developed into a credible threat.

In a February 10 article, the Post reported that U.S. intelligence officials "said there is deep disagreement within the intelligence community over the seriousness of the Library Tower scheme and whether it was ever much more than talk." The Post also noted that Rand Corp. terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, questioned whether the plot ever posed a significant threat:

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism specialist who heads the Washington office of Rand Corp., said Bush's account adds some interesting detail to the Library Tower episode. But he said it still leaves key questions about the case unanswered.

"It doesn't really give us any more indication of whether this was a plot that was derailed or preempted, or a plot that was more in the realm of an idle daydream," Hoffman said.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, mocked the idea of raising the alleged Library Tower plot. "Maybe they're tired of talking about [the] Brooklyn Bridge and they're trying to find a different edifice of some sort," he said, referring to another alleged terrorist plot that some have said was inflated by the government.

The February 10 report by the Los Angeles Times similarly quoted a law enforcement official's assessment that the Al Qaeda plot "didn't go" and "didn't happen," and paraphrased his determination that the plot "was one of many Al Qaeda operations that had not gone much past the conceptual stage":

The details did little to counter skepticism from Democrats and some law enforcement officials who have questioned whether the reported scheme had ever been put into operation before it was thwarted.

"It didn't go," said one U.S. official familiar with the operational aspects of the war on terrorism. "It didn't happen."

The official said he believed the Library Tower plot was one of many Al Qaeda operations that had not gone much past the conceptual stage. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying that those familiar with the plot feared political retaliation for providing a different characterization of the plan than that of the president.

Additionally, no media reported a February 9 exchange between a reporter -- apparently National Journal White House correspondent Alexis Simendinger -- and White House press secretary Scott McClellan, in which Simendinger questioned whether there was "something missing" from the administration's account of the terrorist plot. Simendinger asked McClellan how a terrorist could use a shoe bomb to hijack an airplane without "blow[ing] off the cockpit." From the February 9 White House press briefing:

SIMENDINGER: Scott, I wanted to just ask a follow-up about the L.A. plot. Is there something missing from this story, a practical application, a few facts? Because if you want to commandeer a plane and fly it into a tower, if you used shoe bombs, wouldn't you blow off the cockpit? Or is there something missing from this story?

McCLELLAN: I don't know what you're referring to about missing. I mean, I think we provided you a detailed briefing earlier today about the plot. And Fran Townsend, our homeland security adviser, talked about it. So I'm not sure what you're suggesting it --

SIMENDINGER: Think about it, if you're wearing shoe bombs, you either blow off your feet or you blow off the front of the airplane.

McCLELLAN: There was a briefing for you earlier today. I think that's one way to look at it. There are a lot of ways to look at it, and she explained it earlier today, Alexis, so I would refer you very much back to what she said, what she said earlier today.

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