Press Box

Johnny Headline

Attorney General John Ashcroft dictates the news to the stenographers at the New York Times and Washington Post.

Never call a press conference if you don’t know what headline you want to come out of it.

The three horsemen of the war on drugs and terrorism—Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and Drug Enforcement Administrator Asa Hutchinson—must be delighted at the headlines their Wednesday press extravaganza produced today in the country’s two leading dailies: “U.S. Raids Foil Plots to Send Arms to Al Qaeda and Others” in the New York Times, and “U.S. Foils Swaps of Drugs for Weapons: Ashcroft Announces Arrests in Two Cases” in the Washington Post.

The Ashcroft/Mueller/Hutchinson press conference announced arrests in two alleged drugs-for-weapons cases. In the first, the FBI and DEA busted a Colombian paramilitary organization that sought to swap cocaine and cash for millions of dollars of weapons. The Colombian organization’s big goof? The drugs-for-guns deal they made over many months was with undercover agents from the FBI and DEA.

Now, if the Colombian organization was negotiating with a U.S. government sting operation from the get-go, as the Times and Post report, in what way can the drug and terrorism cops be said to have foiled a plot to sell arms (the Times’ headline wording) or to have foiled the swap of drugs for weapons (the Post’s)? The drugs-for-weapons deal with the Colombians existed only because the U.S. government’s undercover agents agreed to it. The U.S. government never intended to trade weapons for drugs, so it can’t very well take credit for “foiling” a deal that was never going down. “U.S. Stings Paramilitary Squad” might work as a headline, but only the headline-writing team of Ashcroft, Mueller, and Hutchinson would put the word “foil” in the hed or give the story that sort of treatment.

The second drug/terrorism case hyped in the press conference also appears to have been a multi-month sting operation. Run by the FBI, it snared two Pakistanis (Syed Mustajab Shah and Muhammed Abid Afridi) and one American of Indian descent (Ilyas Ali), who allegedly offered tons of heroin and hashish for four Stinger shoulder-to-air missiles. They allegedly told the undercover agents of their intent to sell the missiles to the Taliban. The three defendants are charged only with conspiracy because, like the accused in the Colombian case, they never actually presented the drugs for the exchange. And, once again, because the stinging agents never intended to swap the Stinger missiles, it’s hard to justify the Times and Post’s “foil” heds.

Lest you think this petty criticism, take a gander at the much more informative Los Angeles Times story generated by the same press conference. Beginning with the dispassionate headline, “U.S. Officials Announce 2 Terrorism Indictments,” the Los Angeles Times’ coverage casts a skeptical eye on Ashcroft, Mueller, and Hutchinson’s wild tub-thumping. Far from breaking up a viable terrorist cell, the government seems to have nailed three aspiring nobodies, the story reports. Ralph Vartabedian writes:

No details about the men, any criminal histories, any links to terrorist groups or their role in the drug business were released. Terrorism experts contacted by The Times said the men were not recognized terrorists.

“If they were big fish, we would know,” said Juliette Kayyem of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former member of the National Commission on Terrorism.

To its credit, the New York Times concludes its story with this sentence: “But the officials would not discuss whether there was any evidence suggesting that the man had direct links to Al Qaeda.” But the last sentence of a piece is a strange place to start introducing misgivings about the government’s ballyhooed story.

Given Ashcroft’s shameless overreaching in the past (remember his wacked-out direct-from-Moscow press conference in which he exaggerated the importance of the arrest of Jose “Dirty Bomb” Padilla?) the nation’s premier press should exhibit a little more agnosticism in the government’s war on drugs and terror. If provincial newspapers such as the Minneapolis Star-Tribune (“St. Paul man accused of trying to provide missiles to Al-Qaida“) and the San Diego Union Tribune (“Agents sting traffickers in terror, drugs“) can offer measuredcoverage of the story, so can the Times and Post.

Press critic seeks stinging chatter with agnostics. Send mail to pressbox@hotmail.com