J-politics and Islamist terrorism reporting

It’s been a while since I’ve contributed regularly around here, and I’ve changed jobs in the last few months so it’s probably best I give a quick update. I’m the online editor at The Weekly Standard where I write online and on dead tree pulp about everything from unions to mercenaries to graveyards. So that’s where I’m coming from, these days.

In any event, I want to talk about a story that’s over a year old and how the story and reaction to it tell us something about the way the media frames issues surrounding Islamism.

Let me explain. Last January, Harper’s ran an expose “The Guantánamo ‘Suicides’: A Camp Delta sergeant blows the whistle,” by Scott Horton. Judging from the scare quotes, you can probably gather that the story was insinuating that something much more sinister was going on. The article marshals a great many details to insinuate that three Muslim Gitmo detainees were murdered at a secret CIA facility near the famous Cuban terrorism detainee camp.

Given the serious nature of the accusations, many of you are undoubtedly wondering why you haven’t heard much about this story before. In fact, Jack Shafer, Slate’s inestimable media critic, noted at the time “the major press has largely snubbed the Harper’s scoop.”

Well, Shafer closely examined the story and concluded that there were many, many good reasons why Harper’s expose hadn’t garnered any media attention. Shafer’s takedown of the piece is thorough and convincing, so read the whole thing. But suffice to say, it’s got more holes than golf course made of Swiss cheese:

Although Horton has no proof that the building nestled into the Guantánamo hills houses a CIA operation, he proceeds on the basis of a rumor and a cute nickname to write as if the place is a CIA installation called Camp No. The nine additional references the piece makes to Camp No (not counting its placement on a map) are designed to lull gullible readers into thinking that 1) Camp No exists and 2) that one of its uses is to torture prisoners. Camp No has already become “real” enough to deserve a Wikipedia entry.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the CIA or some other agency did run a secret site at Guantánamo known colloquially to some as Camp No, and that three prisoners were killed there on June 9, 2006, as Horton surmises. But if you were going to torture prisoners to the point of death in interrogations, would you really draw three prisoners from the same cell block, inside the same hour, for that punishment? It would make more sense to torture one to death, cover up that murder, and after a decent interval proceed with the gained information to torture the second prisoner to death. Or, if your aim was to execute them and cover up the murders, why bring the bodies back to a medical clinic where scores of people would examine them and an investigation would be started. Killing three prisoners on one night and then attempting to cover it up is a mission that not even the combined powers of Jack Bauer, James Bond, and Jack Ryan could pull off.

Note that Joe Carter at First Things also took the piece to the woodshed. The fact that the story was a lot of thinly sourced and dubious conjecture likely explains why no one really picked up on the story.

Well, until now. Incredibly, the “Guantanamo ‘Suicides’” piece just won a National Magazine Award for “Best Reporting.” A number of critics are baffled by the honor. I’ll just come out and say what I think — it’s one thing that Harper‘s has tilted left of left in recent years, but it says quite a lot that the worst examples of the magazine’s excessive politicization is chosen for such a high honor (“Guantanamo Suicides” edged out another egregiously politicized piece for the award — Jane Mayer’s now-infamous profile of the Koch Brothers.) Conversely, there are lots of talented journalists that will never win a National Magazine Award, no matter how incredibly deserving they are, simply because they work at publications with a right-of-center editorial slant.

There are many good damning and critical stories to be written about injustices to Muslims as a result of the war on terror.  There’s no need to resort to bad journalism. It’s reaching a point where the pervasive politicization of stories about Muslims is probably doing more harm than good. Last weekend, the Washington Post ran pieces on “four lives shattered and transformed by Osama bin Laden” and two were by Muslims. One was by former Guantanamo detainee Mozzam Begg:

In January 2002, I was taken into custody in Islamabad in front of my wife and children by CIA and Pakistani intelligence agents. I was soon handed over to the U.S. military in Kandahar, where, after being punched, kicked, spat upon, stripped naked and shackled by U.S. troops, I was taken to my first interrogation.

While I was shivering from cold and fear, a man in an FBI baseball cap asked me, “When was the last time you saw Osama bin Laden?”

I replied that I’d never seen him — except on television.

Sounds harrowing. The problem is that the evidence is pretty darn clear that Begg is an Al Qaeda supporter and a jihadist, despite the fact that Post lets him go ahead and write a credulous whitewash job. The other Post piece was about a Muslim-American mistakenly put on the no-fly list. Personally, I think TSA is just about the worst example of ineffective bureaucracy in human history and I’m sure Muslim-Americans are suffering is a result. But it’s not like the media hasn’t covered this story before.

What I want to know is why is the media willfully ignoring an obvious narrative? When the media thinks about “lives shattered and transformed by Osama bin Laden” why do they think, “Hey, let’s get the guy who makes video games about shooting American soldiers and posts Anwar al Awlaki’s propaganda on his website to write something!”

Feel free to dispute this in the comments, but my sense is that when covering Islamic terror the media’s bias makes them gravitate toward stories that also indict the U.S. and Western governments to some degree. For instance, how hard would it have been for the Post to find an Afghan, Iraqi, Moroccan, Pakistani, Somali, Briton, or Spaniard, who was maimed in an Al-Qaeda attack? Or who lost family to al-Qaeda? There are probably a lot of tragic and illuminating stories to be told here. If done right, they might even be worthy of an award.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons.)

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  • Dave G.

    The answer to this:

    What I want to know is why is the media willfully ignoring an obvious narrative?

    most likely has something to do with this:

    it says quite a lot that the worst examples of the magazine’s excessive politicization is chosen for such a high honor

    and this:

    there are lots of talented journalists that will never win a National Magazine Award, no matter how incredibly deserving they are, simply because they work at publications with a right-of-center editorial slant.

    The reasons behind one most likely answer what are behind the others.

  • J

    I don’t get what this post has to do with religion. I think that is reflected by the lack of comments.

    On the substance of the post, I would recommend that readers look at the follow up statements by the government investigators and by Seton Hall and Harpers as well as the cites you give. This a very complex story, and I’m not sure I completely understand the facts, and I don’t have a conclusion. However, you don’t mention that NCIS told six guards interviewed that they had made false statements. The statements have not been released, and none of the guards have been punished. Four other came forward to offer testimony that directly conflicts with the NCIS investigation conclusions, and they were never interviewed.

    I’ll also defend the Post’s choice of editorials here. These were not journalist authored, but rather guest editorials. They are on the opinion page! Two you didn’t mention: the daughter of a 9/11 victim, a Marine sent to war. The idea of the series, to me, was to note the different reactions to bin Laden’s death of some who were personally affected by him. Some one detained in Guantanamo was obviously affected by bin Laden, whether they were a confirmed jihadist or not. Begg’s view (which you don’t even discuss) is that he does not agree with the killing of civilians, and yet he has some level of respect for bin Laden as an individual and for standing up to the West. This is a common view in a significant part of the world.

    The other three reports? The daughter of a 9/11 victim says “His death has elicited a range of emotions for me: numbness, relief and mostly sadness that I will still wake up each day without being able to hug Mom.”

    The American Muslim’s bottom line: “Despite this, I’m hopeful. Bin Laden’s death is symbolic, but symbols matter. Islam has long been burdened by its association with one angry man. Now this weight has been lifted. In time, Muslim Americans like me may no longer be linked to two burning, crumbling towers, but to Muslim youth throughout the Middle East revolting against tyranny. After all, the protesters in Egypt and Syria are demanding things that America celebrates: freedom, respect and equality. Maybe now, Muslim Americans can enjoy them, too.”

    The marine’s perspective: “As a veteran and a citizen of a nation at war for almost a decade, I can say that we don’t seem to get many victories in these modern wars. They feel unending, and their objectives seem hard to define. But everyone can cheer bin Laden’s death like we did that night.”

    I think the choice of editorials does a good job of showing the range of reaction to bin Laden’s death.

  • mark

    J,

    Thanks for this substantive comment. Let me address a few things.

    Regarding the Harper’s article I think you’re only proving my point. Why isn’t the reporter at Harper’s content on reporting the investigation and the irregularities uncovered? That’s a good story in and of itself. Why muck things up by insinuating three murders at a secret facility you can’t begin to prove by any reasonable standard?

    I’m all for hearing from perspectives I don’t agree with — but I do draw the line at those who advance an ideology supportive of murdering innocents. It is very hard to argue that Begg does not do this. And by choosing Begg, the Post denied a rational and moderate Muslim a chance to speak.

    Best,

    Mark

  • J

    He did report on the irregularities uncovered. He specifically got 4 guards to tell him their side of the story. The question has to be why the irregularities? Among the possibilities is that the murders didn’t happen the way the government says they did. I don’t think it would be a surprise to anyone that there might be clandestine interrogations occuring in Guantanamo-he gave some supporting evidence that there were. As you said he “insinuates” the possibility that the deaths were connected with interrogation-he doesn’t say it. He says it “compels us to ask.”

    Assume for a moment that this story has started a conspiracy theory. Given the hard facts of an incomplete investigation and that there will be no Congressional hearings because of national security concerns, doesn’t this story illustrate the problem of a policy that says “let bygones be bygones” and let us not investigate colorable complaints about torture usage now or in the not too distant future? Perhaps someday we’ll have something akin to a South African truth commission on what kinds of torture were practiced and whether they were effective.

    Begg’s statement does not advance an ideology supportive of murdering innocents. He says that he “did not agree with al-Qaeda’s methods” and “The vast majority of Muslims did not agree with bin Laden’s targeting of civilians.” How does that advance an ideology supportive of murdering innocents? I don’t dispute that this guy may have been a jihadi, and may really still like al-Qaeda, but the perspective he wrote isn’t that, and is a common one we must seek to understand (and either refute or deal with) if we are to bring a significant sector of the Islamic world into a better relationship with the modern world. Had Begg written an editorial stating that al-Qaeda was right and bin Laden was perfect, I’d agree with you.

  • mark

    J,

    I’m afraid you sort of tipped your hat with this sentence: “Among the possibilities is that the murders didn’t happen the way the government says they did. I don’t think it would be a surprise to anyone that there might be clandestine interrogations occuring in Guantanamo-he gave some supporting evidence that there were.”

    What murders are you talking about? There are no murders. Officially, what he have is three suicides in a prison camp. We need additional evidence to make that leap.

    We can disagree politically, but we need a common standard of evidence. Speaking as a journalist, you don’t just haul off and suggest people might be guilty of murder without a very high bar of evidence. A few things amiss do not justify insinuations. If I walk down a street and I smell something very bad emanating from a house, should I run to the local paper and write a piece saying naming the owner and saying we’re “compelled to ask” if there’s decomposing bodies in their crawlspace? Of course not.

    As for your questions about investigating “torture” it’s just a total non sequitur. Again we have no evidence of torture here. Just a lot of questions raised by an author who strikes me — and a lot of other journalists — as inherently untrustworthy precisely because of his willingness to fling accusations unsupported by his reporting.

    Finally, Begg’s op-ed makes it sound like he was unjustly put in Guantanamo, but his own confession to the FBI and the results of numerous government investigations provide a bounty of evidence that he wasn’t. Regardless, he’s known for disseminating al Qaeda propaganda. That’s not really in dispute. Given his checkered history, one would think that other Muslim perspectives would be valued over his.

    Maybe you disagree, but I suspect you are in a very small minority among those who know the facts about Mozzam Begg.

    Best,

    Mark

  • J

    Murders should have been deaths-my bad. I don’t know that there were murders, and used the wrong word. Doesn’t change the basic argument-that a bad investigation was done, and that creates room for questioning what really happened.

    No evidence of torture? It’s unquestioned there was torture elsewhere in secretive operations. We have the soldiers stories about the strange comings and goings to Camp No-that is some evidence of what was going on there. Are you really so naive as to not admit the possibility, or even the probability, of CIA or other clandestine interrogations when we know they happened elsewhere?

    Why was Begg released? Must not have been too bad-at least not as bad as some of the others who went through the Saudi cleansing programs and rejoined al-Qaeda openly. In any event, the point of the editorials was to show viewpoints commonly held, and his are commonly held in parts of the world.

  • Harold

    Speaking as a journalist, you don’t just haul off and suggest people might be guilty of murder without a very high bar of evidence. A few things amiss do not justify insinuations. If I walk down a street and I smell something very bad emanating from a house, should I run to the local paper and write a piece saying naming the owner and saying we’re “compelled to ask” if there’s decomposing bodies in their crawlspace? Of course not.

    Of course, the goings-on at Guantanamo make it much more difficult to investigate that smells coming form a house. The levels of secrecy and the way the government treats reporters covering Guantanamo and the detainees means that reporters are required to make more leaps.

    I have to say that I find the criticisms unconvincing. Joe Carter’s mean girls attack on Harpers and anyone who disagrees with him gives him very little credibility since it amounts to little more than a political and ideological screed. Shafer, the grumpy old uncle of media criticism, has a better leg to stand on but his criticism falls flat. It’s just not convincing.

    The reporting is imperfect, but I think the limitations on the ability to report on Gitmo and our actions there requires we give the reporter some leeway. He couches his argument in enough uncertainty that the reader can make their own determination.

    As for Begg, I agree with J that his inclusion is not troubling. It was balanced by many other people who can provide the viewpoint you seem to crave. I realize that the Begg piece has been the cause horrible in conservative circles since its publication and that attention allows people to make their own decisions about his credibility. Still, there is no dispute in anything he said in his piece and clearly does have a perspective on bin Laden that most people don’t.

  • J

    How about Camp Seven at Guantanamo? They kept that secret until 2008. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/10/27/AR2008102702955.html

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    Not to defend Begg but the video game in question was not being made by him, nor did it feature killing American soldiers. A company from Scotland was making the game, which was set in 2020 in a fictional future where Guantanamo is run by a for profit corporation.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Yeah, Mark, he didn’t “make” the video game. He was just a paid consultant with a financial stake.

  • mark

    Thanks for the clarification, Bob.

    But I don’t think it changes much — the idea that you’re shooting “mercenaries” is really just a fig leaf designed make the game seem mildly less contemptible.

  • Mollie

    Here’s another brutal takedown of the Harper’s piece. This time from AdWeek.


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