News coverage of the U.S. response to the September 11 Massacre has been gripping, fascinating, and sometimes chock full of facts that could tip America’s hand to our enemies. As Operation Infinite Justice proceeds, journalists and officials should mind their words far more carefully.
The ever-informative New York Post published on September 16 an overly informative map that illustrated U.S. and allied military assets in and around the Middle East. Pinpointing the well-known Air Force base at Incirlik, Turkey revealed nothing new to potential terrorists.
But if a follower of Osama bin Laden happened to leaf through the paper, he might have been intrigued to learn that “an oil tanker loaded with aviation fuel has left” Mediterranean country X for “a large refueling base” in country Y. The map identified the nations and military outpost by name, which I will not repeat here.
Armed with these facts, anti-American extremists might decide to stage a fiery sequel to the October 12, 2000 assault on the U.S.S. Cole. Bin Laden’s men already have demonstrated a morbid fascination with jet fuel.
As President Bush has explained, this new war will require Americans to make sacrifices. One should be to resist the impulse, from which I also suffer, to demand every facet of every story — right now. The fact that terrorists used box cutters to commandeer jets and turn them into passenger-filled missiles is a compelling and disturbing detail. However, it would kill no American to learn that datum once historians document this war and its soldiers write their memoirs. Terrorists now know that box cutters will set off klaxons in the mind of any American with an IQ over 50. Had that datum remained widely unknown, airline personnel, and law-enforcement officers quietly could have been alerted that those with box cutters should be questioned, at least. Instead, terrorists likely will wield less suspicious devices in any subsequent act of mayhem.
The same holds true for the use of credit cards (which leave paper trails), large sums of cash and one-way plane tickets. Any mad bomber who has watched 15 minutes of TV lately knows that these items draw attention, create investigative leads or both. A future kamikaze killer might remain inconspicuous by purchasing a roundtrip ticket, never fretting that the return portion would turn to ashes once a fireball consumed his carry-on luggage.
Journalists, like all Americans, worry that governmental antiterrorist efforts could limit individual liberty. That is a perfectly legitimate concern. However, if government must respect freedom, the media must exercise responsibility. Minute-by-minute accounts of terrorists’ actions and quirks make for riveting TV and page-turning publications. Unfortunately, by telegraphing what the good guys know about the bad guys, these stories can help mass murderers escape or — even worse — plan their next atrocity in even darker shadows.
Of course, it’s not only reporters who should watch their words. Authorities whose tongues outpace their brains can be dangerously forthcoming. Two years ago, the Washington Post reported on September 13, bin Laden’s satellite phone went quiet after word emerged that U.S. spies were listening in. In recent days, many of the intriguing facts about bin Laden’s hijacking teams only could have come from investigators intimately familiar with this ongoing probe.
Capitol Hill also is a sieve for secrets. Administration members reportedly have been vague in their post-massacre legislative briefings for fear that some members of Congress cannot keep secrets.
Senate Intelligence Committee member Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) heightened these apprehensions when he told reporters shortly after the September 11 slaughter: “Everything is pointing in the direction of Osama bin Laden.” Hatch added: “They have an intercept of some information that includes people associated with bin Laden who acknowledged a couple of targets were hit.”
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quickly warned that when officials carelessly blurt out secrets, “the effect is to reduce the chances that the United States government has to track down and deal with the people who have perpetrated the attacks on the United States and killed so many Americans.”
“Loose lips sink ships,” was a World War II slogan that warned Americans not to blab sensitive information. It should be dusted off like an old Glenn Miller record and heeded during this world war, too.