Wednesday, March 28, 2012

In Defense of Dina

Glenn Greenwald of Salon launched an attack on Dina Temple-Raston of NPR yesterday, beginning:
It is well worth listening to this 4-minute NPR story from this morning (embedded below) on the grave and growing menace of “state-sponsored Terrorism” from Iran. NPR national security reporter Dina Temple-Raston does what she (and NPR reporters generally) typically do: Gathers a couple of current and former government officials (with an agreeable establishment think-tank expert thrown in the mix), uncritically airs what they say, and then repeats it herself. This is what establishment-serving journalists in Washington mean when they boast that they, but not their critics, engage in so-called “real reporting”; it means: calling up Serious People in Washington and uncritically repeating what they say (see here and here for the episode when Temple-Raston voiced that basic claim to me, as she boasted of special knowledge she possessed about Anwar Awlaki’s guilt obtained when unnamed government officials whispered assertions to her in private which she then uncritically repeated: That’s real reporting).
That's as far as I got. Why? Well, I was distracted by his venomous description of the job done by Temple-Raston and NPR. I share Greenwald's suspicion of reliance on unnamed government sources and leaks. Those leaks are often self-serving and, in the context of national security, can be particularly vexing. Witness the government's leaks regarding Anwar al-Aulaqi's addition to targeted killing lists and then its claim, when sued by al-Aulaqi's father to enjoy his killing, that to reveal the existence (or not) of the targeted killing list(s) and to reveal al-Aulaqi's presence (or not) on it would reveal a state secret, thus requiring the suit's dismissal. 

Yet, sometimes the leaks and unnamed government sources are providing journalists and their readers with good, useful information. It is with this sentiment in mind that I watch one of the videos Greenwald links to--a previous exchange with Temple-Raston--in an attempt to denigrate her reporting. Begin listening at 53:00:

Notice this exchange. Dina Temple-Raston is attempting to very politiely correct the record based not on what she's heard but what she's actually seen: Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalib's statement to the government after being taken into custody. Greenwald cannot be bothered to be civil to Temple-Raston let alone process what she's saying. The fact that her source is the government--regardless of whether she's witnessed something bearing out the source's statement--is fatal for Greenwald. There is no way Temple-Raston's objection that al-Aulaqi is actually an operational, and not merely inspirational leader, of AQAP is correct, according to Greenwald.

Fair enough. This exchange occurred in November 2010 and there was little reason for Greenwald to be swayed. Indeed, the government had just had al-Aulaqi's father's suit dismissed on questions of justiciability, hinting that, even if those weren't there, the state secrets doctrine would have applied despite the government's earlier self-serving leak. At the time, when I was grappling with this case myself, I was similarly skeptical and only just coming around to the notion that al-Aulaqi was, in fact, operational and not merely inspirational.

But Greenwald is linking to this exchange today, 18 months later, to demonstrate that Temple-Raston's reporting is erroneous. What's the difference between November 2010 and March 2012, well, Abdumutallib has been charged, tried (plead out, actually), and sentenced. And, in the sentencing memorandum (see pages 12-14), we read, based on Abdumutallib's sworn statement:

Once in Yemen, defendant visited mosques and asked people he met if they knew how he could meet Awlaki.  Eventually, defendant made contact with an individual who in turn made Awlaki aware of defendant’s desire to meet him.  Defendant provided this individual with the number for his Yemeni cellular telephone.   Thereafter, defendant received a text message from Awlaki telling defendant to call him, which defendant did.  During their brief telephone conversation, it was agreed that defendant would send Awlaki a written message explaining why he wanted to become involved in jihad.  Defendant took several days to write his message to Awlaki, telling him of his desire to become involved in jihad, and seeking Awlaki’s guidance.  After receiving defendant’s message, Awlaki sent defendant a response, telling him that Awlaki would find a way for defendant to become involved in jihad.
Thereafter, defendant was picked up and driven through the Yemeni desert.  He eventually arrived at Awlaki’s house, and stayed there for three days.  During that time, defendant met with Awlaki and the two men discussed martyrdom and jihad.  Awlaki told defendant that jihad requires patience but comes with many rewards.  Defendant understood that Awlaki used these discussions to evaluate defendant’s commitment to and suitability for jihad. Throughout, defendant expressed his willingness to become involved in any mission chosen for him, including martyrdom - and by the end of his stay, Awlaki had accepted defendant for a martyrdom mission.
Defendant left Awlaki’s house, and was taken to another house, where he met AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim Al Asiri.  Defendant and Al Asiri discussed defendant’s desire to commit an act of jihad.  Thereafter, Al Asiri discussed a plan for a martyrdom mission with Awlaki, who gave it final approval, and instructed Defendant Abdulmutallab on it.  For the following two weeks, defendant trained in an AQAP camp, and received instruction in weapons and indoctrination in jihad.  During his time in the training camp, defendant met many individuals, including Samir Khan.
Ibrahim Al Asiri constructed a bomb for defendant’s suicide mission and personally delivered it to Defendant Abdulmutallab.  This was the bomb that defendant carried in his underwear on December 25, 2009.  Al Asiri trained defendant in the use of the bomb, including by having defendant practice the manner in which the bomb would be detonated; that is, by pushing the plunger of a syringe, causing two chemicals to mix, and initiating a fire (which would then detonate the explosive). Awlaki told defendant that he would create a martyrdom video that would be used after the defendant’s attack.  Awlaki arranged for a professional film crew to film the video.  Awlaki assisted defendant in writing his martyrdom statement, and it was filmed over a period of two to three days.  The full video was approximately five minutes in length.
Although Awlaki gave defendant operational flexibility, Awlaki instructed defendant that the only requirements were that the attack be on a U.S. airliner, and that the attack take place over U.S. soil.  Beyond that, Awlaki gave defendant discretion to choose the flight and date.  Awlaki instructed defendant not to fly directly from Yemen to Europe, as that could attract suspicion.  As a result, defendant took a circuitous route, traveling from Yemen to Ethiopia to Ghana to Nigeria to Amsterdam to Detroit.  Prior to defendant’s departure from Yemen, Awlaki’s last instructions to him were to wait until the airplane was over the United States and then to take the plane down.
The sentencing memorandum, relying on Abdulmuttalib's sworn statement, bears out al-Aulaqi's operational role within AQAP. Moreover, the court's statement implicitly verifies Temple-Raston's comments to Greenwald in November 2010. It would appear that Temple-Raston had in fact seen something Greenwald had not. Despite his skepticism at the time, deserved or not, Temple-Raston was right and Greenwald was wrong. And that completely undermines Greenwald's sarcastic introduction. In fact, Temple-Raston wasn't uncritically relying on the assurances of an officer of the U.S. government. Instead, as she tried to explain in November 2010, she had seen the evidence for herself--a self-authenticating sworn statement from the perpetrator of an attempted terrorist attack.

None of this is to suggest that we, the public, should adopt a Polyannaish approach to journalists who rely on unnamed government sources. No, Judy Miller--along with many like her who came before--destroyed any suggestion that that might be okay. But neither is it reasonable to dismiss out of hand any journalist who does have access to government source--and not just sources, but sources willing to provide evidence to buttress their statements, as was the case here. Nor is it reasonable to launch into yet another attack on the same journalist and cite for support an exchange in which you were demonstrably wrong without making any reference to the fact that you were indeed wrong. Wrongly citing a case in that manner would get you in trouble before the bench, Counselor.

1 comment:

Bill said...

Dina Temple-Raston is attempting to very politely correct the record…

Are you saying that the combination of ad hominem fallacy, condescension, and falsehood qualifies as being very polite?

Greenwald cannot be bothered to be civil to Temple-Raston let alone process what she's saying.

Oh, I guess you are.