Boston - Among the responsibilities a free press should meet is alerting people to danger. It has done so in matters pertaining to disease and diet, but it failed to sufficiently warn the public of the growing terrorist threat in the years leading up to 9/11.
In its well-written report, the 9/11 commission noted that it had become "conventional wisdom" prior to 9/11 that terrorism was not as big a threat to Americans as it would soon prove to be. As one example, it cites an April 1999 New York Times story that "sought to debunk claims that (Osama) bin Laden was a terrorist leader." The newspaper headline said: "U.S. Hard Put to Find Proof Bin Laden Directed Attacks."
The commission notes that terrorism was not a central issue in the 2000 presidential campaign, mostly because "the media called little attention to it." When Jordan arrested 16 terrorists, including two American citizens, for planning bombings in that country, the story was buried on page 13 of The New York Times.
In a July 22 story for Editor and Publisher magazine, Charles Geraci writes, "The commission also offered an interesting media-related insight regarding pressures on the CIA. In its evaluation of the intelligence agency, the commission reports that starting in the 1990s, the CIA found it had to move more quickly in response to, and then reflecting, 'the culture of the newsroom. During the 1990s, the rise of around-the-clock news shows and the Internet reinforced pressure on analysts to pass along fresh reports to policymakers at an even-faster pace, trying to add context or supplement what their customers were receiving from the media.' This led to weaknesses 'in all-source and strategic analysis.'"
Leaks to the media also hurt intelligence gathering, according to the commission report. The commission said that after a leak to The Washington Times in 1998, al-Qaida's senior leadership ceased a particular form of communication, making it more difficult to intercept bin Laden's conversations.
That's the past. What about future threats? According to journalist and author Paul Williams in his new book, "Osama's Revenge: The Next 9/11," bin Laden associates could possess suitcase nuclear bombs capable of killing millions of Americans and exposing millions more to deadly radioactive fallout. While the media have reported on some of this, they have not "put all the pieces together," as Williams attempts to do in his book. Bin Laden associates are only waiting, according to Williams, "for the right opportunity to launch an apocalyptic attack against the 'Great Satan' of America."