Inspire is a glossy, English-language, online magazine published by al-Qaeda. It was conceived by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric and al-Qaeda leader, who also contributed editorials. In 2011, President Obama ordered a drone strike against al-Awlaki as he was riding in a car in Yemen along with Samir Khan, Inspire’s Pakistani-American editor and publisher. So why hasn’t the Newseum — the interactive Washington museum of news and journalism — honored al-Awlaki and Kahn in its Journalist Memorial?
If your answer is “because the Newseum would never honor terrorists,” you’re on shakier ground than you might think.
Last week, the Newseum announced that it was adding the names Mahmoud Al-Kumi and Hussam Salama to the engraved glass panels on which it features Daniel Pearl and other “reporters, photographers and broadcasters who have died reporting the news.” Just to be clear: Al-Kumi and Salama were not terrorists because I say they were terrorists. They were terrorists because the United States government says they were terrorists. Both men were employees of Al-Aqsa Television, designated a terrorist entity in 2010 by President Obama’s Treasury Department. Al-Aqsa is an arm of Hamas, also a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” organization which, according to the Treasury, “has intentionally killed hundreds of civilians, including U.S. citizens.” Palestinian media have reported that the two men were Hamas operatives as well.
The Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence has noted that Al-Aqsa “airs programs and music videos designed to recruit children to become Hamas armed fighters and suicide bombers upon reaching adulthood. . . . Treasury will not distinguish between a business financed and controlled by a terrorist group, such as Al-Aqsa Television, and the terrorist group itself.” Not untypical among the videos broadcast by Al-Aqsa is one calling for Allah to kill Jews, Christians, and Communists — “kill them to the last one, and don’t leave even one.”
Like al-Awlaki and Khan, Al-Kumi and Salama were targeted with a missile. That missile was fired by the Israeli military in the midst of last year’s conflict between Israel and Hamas. Unlike al-Awlaki and Khan, al-Kumi and Salama produced a miniscule journalistic oeuvre: To what news reports they contributed — if any — is unclear. Since, at the time they were killed, they were apparently traveling without a producer or reporter, might they have been simply gathering intelligence for their Hamas commanders? Did anyone at the Newseum attempt to gather such basic facts?
I first heard about the Newseum’s plans late last Thursday night when a reporter e-mailed me. He knew that the national-security-policy institute I head, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, holds its annual Washington Forums at the Newseum. As someone who spent most of his adult life as a reporter and editor (for the New York Times and other publications), I have a fondness for the venue. I was asked if FDD would be changing its plans for 2013.
It would, of course, be inappropriate for a think tank that opposes terrorism to hold an event at an institution that honors terrorists. But I said I would call the Newseum’s CEO, James C. Duff, first thing in the morning, in the hope that there had been some misunderstanding.
Mr. Duff did not return my call. I then called the Newseum’s spokesman, Scott Williams. He, too, did not call me back. I found this both ironic and troubling: An institution dedicated to the public’s right to know refuses to answer questions when it is the subject of a news story.
Later that day, the Newseum issued a statement saying that the “Journalists Memorial selection committee conducts case-by-case reviews” of the criteria qualifying those honored, adding that “Hussam Salama and Mahmoud Al-Kumi were cameramen in a car clearly marked ‘TV.’”
Is it possible that the members of the selection committee — I have not been able to find out who they are — have never heard of terrorists putting such markings on their vehicles? In this case, the letters “TV” had been crudely spray-painted in red on the hood. And, there is this easily researchable bit of background: In 2007, Israeli soldiers were kidnapped by terrorists driving a car marked “TV.”
Terrorists also have used Red Crescent “ambulances” to transport combatants and weapons, and established command centers in close proximity to news operations, schools, hospitals, and U.N. offices. To cite just one example: On November 19, 2012, four senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives took over an office on the second floor of a media building in Gaza where major international news organizations maintained offices.
Such use of “human shields” violates the most fundamental laws of armed combat, endangering legitimate reporters and other civilians. By what perverse logic would the Newseum — an institution that proclaims its mission is to educate “the public about the value of a free press in a free society” — reward such a practice?
On Monday morning, just minutes before its ceremony honoring a list of “fallen journalists,” the Newseum released an “update” saying that “serious questions” had been raised and, in response, it had “decided to re-evaluate the inclusion” of Mahmoud Al-Kumi and Hussam Salama “as journalists on our memorial wall pending further investigation.”
The keynote speaker at the ceremony was Richard Engel, NBC’s intrepid chief foreign correspondent who was held hostage in Syria for five days last December. Briefly addressing the controversy, Engel said, “just because you carry a camera and a notebook doesn’t make you a journalist. A journalist has the responsibility to seek the truth no matter what it is, even if the story hurts your cause. Journalists shouldn’t have causes. They should have principles and beliefs. But this is where it gets tricky because who gets to draw the line?”
Fair question. Perhaps we start with the assumption that when U.S. government investigators go to the considerable time, expense, and trouble necessary to designate a terrorist organization, they may know what they are doing. And then let’s continue the conversation from there.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.