Media Files
Tuesday, February 14, 2006 10:38 AM
13/2/06 “Terror Plot” Reporting Lacks Skepticism Networks treat White House allegations as fact

Media Advisory


When George W. Bush announced on February 9 that an Al-Qaeda plot against a building in Los Angeles had been “thwarted,” many television newscasts took the administration’s claims as fact.

ABC World News Tonight anchor Charles Gibson reported (2/9/06) that “President Bush today revealed some details of a terrorist plot that was foiled,” later putting this question to ABC reporter Pierre Thomas: “So what were the details of the plot and how was it foiled?” After a brief summary of the administration’s story of the plot and some soundbites from terrorism experts on the general threat posed by Al-Qaeda, Thomas concluded that “disaster was averted.”

CNN’s Miles O’Brien (2/10/06) displayed a similar lack of skepticism: “The president was talking terror yesterday, and lifting a veil on a thwarted Al-Qaeda attack that aimed to fly a hijacked airliner into a L.A. skyscraper in early 2002.” Unsurprisingly, conservative commentators like Fox’s Bill O’Reilly were upset that the media weren’t credulous enough; O’Reilly (2/10/06) singled out the New York Times (2/10/06) for failing to give the story prominent placement: “Of course, on page 22 is the terror thing that they stopped an attack on Los Angeles. Page 22.”

CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer announced (2/9/06) that “for the first time President Bush confirmed today that in the months after 9/11, the government broke up another terrorist plot to fly a plane into the tallest building in Los Angeles.” The fact that Bush says something does not “confirm” that what he is saying is true˜and in fact, earlier reporting by the Los Angeles Times casts doubts on Bush’s claims.

As an NPR report (2/10/06) recalled, “Elements of the plot have been described before, notably in the L.A. Times.” But the earliest Times report (3/31/04) included a significant caveat about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Al-Qaeda operative who allegedly planned the L.A. attack: “Law enforcement officials, however, caution that Mohammed’s statements since his capture have been viewed with a degree of skepticism by U.S. intelligence.”

The next Times story (10/8/05), headlined “Scope of Plots Bush Says Were Foiled Is Questioned,” cited “several counter-terrorism officials” as saying that “the plot never progressed past the planning stages… ‘To take that and make it into a disrupted plot is just ludicrous,’ said one senior FBI official.” “At most,” the story suggested, “it was a plan that was stopped in its initial stages and was not an operational plot that had been disrupted by authorities.”

In the current round of reporting on the story, some newspapers have noted the dissent over the alleged plot. The Washington Post (2/10/06) cited “several U.S. intelligence officials” who “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.” And the New York Daily News (2/10/06) cited one senior counterterrorism official who said: “There was no definitive plot. It never materialized or got past the thought stage.”

Such skepticism should have been the norm in the media˜especially given the White House’s record of deception (e.g., FAIR press release,

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