Friday, July 07, 2006

Mass Transit Terrorist Bombing Plot

Both left- and right-wing bloggers are all over the news that the FBI disrupted what is alleged to have been a terrorist plot to bomb the Holland Tunnel. [Later reports say that the Holland Tunnel was not the target, but the authorities would not elaborate.] Rightie bloggers are pointing to the disrupted plot as 'proof' that the New York Times article about the banking records surveillance program 'crippled' the government's ability to catch terrorists. Why? Because the Times's exposure of the SWIFT database forced the feds to stop the planned attack before the investigation was completed:

It is highly possible the terrorists were adapting and disappearing from the radar screens of the international law enforcement agencies, so action now was required.

Leftie bloggers are highlighting the 'Much ado about nothing' angle (because the arrests were made on the basis of loose talk in an Internet chatroom, and not much more).

CBS News' Public Eye, a blog about the way the media covers news, thinks the Daily News editors let their desire to sell papers overwhelm their judgment about this story's news value -- not because the story revealed any national security secrets, but because it's basically a non-story: There's no "there" there:

"TUNNEL BOMB PLOT" trumpeted the New York Daily News this morning on its cover, the words printed in big bold white letters against a black background. Jihadists, said the paper, had a "serious" plot to flood lower Manhattan by bombing the Holland Tunnel, "to drown the Financial District as New Orleans was by Hurricane Katrina."

Frightening? Sure. "Serious?" Well, the jury is still out. The "largely aspirational" plot never went beyond e-mails, there was no credible link to Al Qaeda, and there was no specific mention of the Holland Tunnel, just the mass transit system more generally; additionally, sources say "no one in the United States ever took part in the Internet conversations and ... no one ever purchased any explosives or scouted the transit system."

The plot as the Daily News conceived it seemed absurd enough that one would have thought it would have given editors pause -- how does one flood lower Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel, seeing as the island is above the level of the river? But that didn't stop the paper from rushing its inaccurate story into print and trumpeting it with BIG BOLD LETTERS, and it didn't stop other news organizations from turning the alleged plot into a huge story. That's no surprise, of course. When people speak of bias in the press, they tend to talk abut political bias, but the more serious bias is towards sensationalism, which tends to sell better. (It's safe to say the Daily News moved a few more copies this morning than usual.)

Steve Soto asks the same question I had when I saw that rightie bloggers were using the Daily News article to continue bashing the New York Times:

Why is it bad for the Times to report on financial monitoring of overseas banking transactions that Bush has already bragged about, but now it's OK for a federal official to reveal the information [about the plan to bomb the Holland Tunnel] came from monitoring internet chat rooms?

John Amato over at Crooks and Liars points out that the Daily News piece goes further than simply revealing where the government's information comes from: The investigation into the plot the Daily News wrote about is not over yet. Where is the outcry and the accusations of treason about the Daily News telling the public about an ongoing terrorist investigation?

I called the NY Daily News columnist, ALLISON GENDAR, who was one of the journalists that broke this story today. ...
I knew it was going to be a hectic day in the newsroom, but I asked her if she thought that the Daily News would be attacked like the NY Times was since this is still an ongoing investigation and her paper printed the story anyway. She quickly said she had to go, but said I could call back. Where is the outrage from the administration and the right wing bloggers over The Daily News possibly compromising an ongoing investigation? I don't wish to cause the NY Daily News problems, but you can see where I'm headed here. It sure looks like the government leaked this story to The Daily News to make itself look good. Crawfordslist feels the same way. The NY Times was set up by the administration and is still being attacked over idiotic stories. This NY Daily News story is more proof of that. ...

Apparently, the New York Times is at fault for the articles it publishes, and for the articles the Daily News publishes:

Most disturbing is this terrorist action here in the US has all the characteristics of having been stopped using the very same programs the NY Times has crippled in its mindless attacks on the Bush administration. Monitoring communications includes monitoring the overseas access to internet chat rooms. One can see the now exposed monitoring of the terrorists' finances and NSA monitoring of overseas terrorists in the information being provided -- meaning they may have had to act now because the terrorists were adjusting their tactics:

Counterterrorism officials are alarmed by the "lone wolf" terror plot because they allegedly got a pledge of financial and tactical support from Jordanian associates of top terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before he was killed in Iraq, a counterterrorism source told The News.

Emphasis mine. The tactical support is going to come through communications. The plot could have easily been initially detected when this "lone wolf" made contact with the Jordanian terrorists who could have been under NSA surveillance. Since the FBI is involved, the next logical sequence of events would be the NSA providing the lead to the FBI who then took it to the FISA court to make the person the target of surveillance here in the US once they decided it was a serious enough of a threat. It seems clear the authorities had to move before they wanted to for some reason or another:

The News has learned that at the request of U.S. officials, authorities in Beirut arrested one of the alleged conspirators, identified as Amir Andalousli, in recent months. Agents were scrambling yesterday to try to nab other suspects, sources said.

They didn't indicate how many people were the target of the international dragnet but said they were scattered all over the world.

"This is an ongoing operation," one source said.

U.S. agents were allowed to take part in the interrogation of Andalousli, a source said.

There were three ongoing investigations that were impacted by the NY Times' despicable exposure of the SWIFT program which was used to track terrorists cells around the world (not here in the US). It is highly possible the terrorists were adapting and disappearing from the radar screens of the international law enforcement agencies, so action now was required. The word 'scrambling' is not something we want to see when dealing with terrorist threats.

Is the NY Times a danger to Americans in its lust for money and partisan payback on Bush? I'll let the good people of America decide whether they think so based on the plans of these terrorists:

The plotters wanted to detonate a massive amount of explosives inside the Holland Tunnel to blast a hole that would destroy the tunnel, everyone in it, and send a devastating flood shooting through the streets of lower Manhattan.

It is assumed by officials the thugs would try to use vehicles packed with explosives.

Sources said that New York City officials believed the plan could conceivably work with enough explosives placed in the middle of the tunnel, which runs underneath the river bed, a source said.

But others doubted the plot was feasible.

"You are talking major, major explosives and knowledge of blast effect to make this happen," said another senior counterterrorism source.

The efforts to try and play this down by anyone, but especially by the left, is abhorent. Picture you and your family driving through a tunnel or under a bridge when terrorists try this kind of action. Even localized death and destruction is unacceptable losses. If NY City needed a reminder of the stakes the NY Times is playing with (their Pulitzers vs NYC lives) there is no better example. Just imaging [sic] if this had slipped by because we had been blinded to the terrorist's actions.

Yes, and just imagine if any or all of the remaining suspects in the Holland Tunnel bombing plot elude capture because the Daily News published an article about an ongoing investigation.

Liberal Catnip (a blog that's new to me; I found it via a link at Crooks and Liars) devotes an
entire post to the deafening silence on the right about the Daily News reporting leaked information about a live investigation.

It's worth pointing out that the Counterterrorism Blog, which is widely respected both on the left and the right sides of the blogosphere, does not mention the New York Times article -- or news media coverage at all, in connection with national security -- in its initial analysis of the tunnel bombing plot. Not only that: Victor Comras, one of Counterterrorism Blog's regular contributors, is quoted in an op-ed by Ann Woolner (on saying that terrorists are fully aware that their finances are being tracked, and how they are being tracked; and that the New York Times article told them nothing they did not already know:

"We've been announcing that we've been tracing assets and financial transactions for a long time," says Victor Comras, a retired U.S. diplomat who oversaw a United Nations program aimed at tracking terrorist funds. "The fact of the matter is that terrorists knew we were tracking their assets and they took countermeasures early on," Comras said in a telephone interview.

This op-ed is referenced on the right sidebar of Counterterrorism Blog with the link text, "No Crime When Journalists Report What's Public."

Perhaps the right should ask itself why it is raising such a ruckus over something that counterterrorism experts are utterly unconcerned about.

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