DISINFORMATION: 22 MEDIA MYTHS THAT UNDERMINE THE WAR ON TERROR
By Richard Miniter
Regnery, $27.95, 275 pages
Are suitcase nukes for real? Is Osama bin Laden on dialysis? Did the CIA fund bin Laden in the 1980s? These are the sorts of hard-to-reach questions that reporters covering the war on terror haven’t answered definitively. So it’s no surprise that they get shrouded in myth and error.
In that context comes ex-Wall Street Journal Europe editorial writer Richard Miniter’s “Disinformation: 22 Media Myths That Undermine the War on Terror,” a short generalist’s guide to these three questions and 19 others. Words like “disinformation” and “media myths” suggest a conservative “mainstream media” basher, but Mr. Miniter’s book is far from that: It urges original-source reporting where possible, scrutiny of motives, “tough editing” and above all reportorial honesty.
So how does Mr. Miniter’s book measure up to those standards? Much of it is exemplary. Some of it aims too low: People who believe that the Mossad warned Jews to stay away from the World Trade Center on September 11 — one of the 22 myths — are beyond reason. In some cases, Mr. Miniter’s politics get the best of him, like his chapter on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which he insists U.S. forces actually found. Even President Bush admits this is wrong: Sunday night, he told the nation that “we did not find those weapons.”
But elsewhere, the elusive subject matter is largely to blame for the shortcomings. Overall, despite a few flaws, Mr. Miniter’s book is a lucid and readable tour of the unknowns — and some of the laughable myths — of the war on terror.
In many cases, all Mr. Miniter does to debunk a myth is consult the public record. In the chapter on “suitcase nukes,” for example, Mr. Miniter shows that, factually speaking, the basis for thinking that there exist briefcase-sized Russian nuclear devices — which many publicly fret about — is exceedingly thin. The source for “suitcase nukes” was originally Russian Gen. Alexander Lebed, a notorious teller of tall tales. The only U.S. government official to publicly admit seeing “suitcase nukes” says they were the size of three footlockers.
The theory lived on because well-intentioned and influential people like Graham Allison — a respected international-security expert and former Clinton administration official — erred on the side of alarmism when they bought into Mr. Lebed’s assertions. That started a myth which fed on rumor and disinformation.
In other cases, Mr. Miniter goes directly to the source the way a good reporter ought to. Did the CIA fund bin Laden 20 years ago? Almost certainly not, Mr. Miniter rightly concludes, on the basis of interviews with CIA officials in charge at the time. Bin Laden denies it; U.S. officials deny it; Peter Bergen and Robert Fisk, the Western journalists who best knew bin Laden before September 11, both think not.
The same can be said of the “Bin Laden on dialysis” myth, which persists despite any evidence. Pakistani Prime Minister Pervez Musharraf, the only public figure on record supporting the notion, flip-flopped a year ago. Bin Laden’s former doctor, a British citizen, spoke to reporters about it in 2002 and denied it. A poor cave-to-cave diet probably explains why bin Laden looks so gaunt in recent videotapes.
In other cases, Mr. Miniter compiles academic research to answer misconceptions. Does poverty cause terrorism? No: Terrorists come mostly from middle-class or upper-class backgrounds. Did the U.S. military kill 100,000 civilians in Iraq? No: flawed, estimate-based research yielded that figure; the likelier total is around 30,000.
And then there are the laughers. Did Oliver North warn America about Osama bin Laden in the 1980s? No, he warned about Abu Nidal, not Osama bin Laden. Did the Mossad warn Jews about the terror attacks on the World Trade Center? No, many Jews perished when the towers crumbled.
To Mr. Miniter’s great credit, he does not lampoon people for believing these myths, nor does he slam the media. He rightly observes that people form opinions on the basis of the information available and on their assumptions and prejudices, conscious or otherwise. The state of knowledge on terrorism is quite poor. What’s the solution? Hard work and better reporting. “Clearly newsroom cultures have to change,” he argues, starting with tougher editing and an end to stories “too good to check.” More readable, mass-circulation titles like Mr. Miniter’s would also help.
Brendan Conway is an editorial writer at The Washington Times.