Press Box

Mohammed Sings

But the Post and the Times hum to different verses.

Ensconced in an interrogation shed somewhere outside the United States, alleged Sept. 11 “architect” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is reportedly singing details about al-Qaida to his captors. But the recipients of Mohammed’s revelations, U.S. “officials,” seem to have one story for the Washington Post today and another for the New York Times.

The Post and the Times stories don’t contradict one another directly, but they make you wonder why inside sources would be telling the Post about what Mohammed says al-Qaida’s future plans are while the inside sources talking to the Times are focused on what Mohammed says happened in the run-up to previous attacks.

The Post article, “Al Qaeda Official Tells of Planned Attacks,” cites government sources who say Mohammed has divulged details about planned terrorist “attacks on U.S. convoys in Afghanistan; nightclubs in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and targets in Turkey.” Mohammed is also talking about al-Qaida’s links to South Asia extremists and planned attacks “on oil interests and an Israeli embassy in the region.” The Post continues:

One government official said Mohammed and other senior detainees have been talking about “plots possibly nearing fruition … some that should be ready by now.” “He’s talked about a whole gamut of attacks in the works,” a senior FBI counterterrorism official said. “We’re trying to run everything down to see if he’s telling the truth.”

Meanwhile, government officials are playing a different Mohammed tune to the Times in “Bin Laden Chose 9/11 Targets, Qaeda Agent Says.” According to “officials” who talked to the Times and a “classified government analysis,” Mohammed alleges that Osama Bin Laden personally signed off on the Sept. 11 targets. Other targets were suggested, including the Sears Tower, the White House, the Capitol, and Israel’s Washington embassy. Al-Qaida also mused about blasting gas stations, nuclear reactors, water reservoirs, and bridges.

The Times story is as mum about al-Qaida’s future attacks as the Post is vocal. And the Post has nothing about al-Qaida’s pre-Sept. 11 deliberations. (However, both stories repeatedly acknowledge that Mohammed could be lying to his interrogators.)

The Post and Times resemble the blind men in the parable who are asked to describe an elephant. Depending on what part of the animal they touch—tail? tusk? foot?—the blind men conjure up a different creature. Both the Post and the Times accounts could be absolutely true (but each incomplete without the other). Either or both stories could be false, even though accurately reported (this would be the “Mohammed is lying” contingency). Or the government could be deliberately spreading disinformation about what Mohammed is saying to smoke out additional al-Qaida operatives. Or the government could be accidentally spreading disinformation because it doesn’t know any better. Or the government could have accidentally released raw interrogation data that was never meant to represent the truth—or even a partial truth.

This kind of reporting requires newspaper readers to work like intelligence analysts, sorting through alleged facts to find the truth. The reliability of stories, such as these, sourced anonymously to a prisoner who has every reason to lie, is low. But not so low as to be worthless. Still, it would be helpful if editors rated the truth value of stories like the dueling pair from the Post and Times today. A “Truthometer”—indicating an editor’s judgment that the story was 97 percent reliable, 75 percent reliable, or 100 percent bunk—would help readers assess what the elephant might look like.

Put another way: It’s not that newspapers shouldn’t write stories like these or that we shouldn’t read them. The issue is simply how big a grain of salt we should take as we swallow this stuff.

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