(Mike Masnick) I don’t have cable. I almost never watch TV. I never see cable news unless someone points me to a clip online. Yet apparently, with the extended holiday weekend this past weekend, cable news went absolutely bonkers with vague, unsubstantiated claims from government officials about how everyone should be on heightened alert for an attack from ISIS:
CNN has led the pack in whipping Americans into a panic over the Isis threat, running story after story with government officials and terrorism industry money-makershyping the threat, played against the backdrop of scary b-roll of terrorist training camps. Former CIA deputy director Mike Morell ominously told CBS last week that“I wouldn’t be surprised if we weren’t sitting here a week from today talking about an attack over the weekend in the United States.” MSNBC and Fox joined in too,using graphics and maps right out of Stephen Colbert’s satirical “Doom Bunker,”suggesting World War III was just on the verge of reaching America’s shores.
The Morell appearance was particularly ridiculous, with it posting during the episode the following map of “recent ISIS arrests” in the US to emphasize the bullshit claim that ISIS was already in the US and plotting attacks:
The problem, of course, is that none of those arrests were really connected to ISIS in any serious way. Nearly all of them were actually plots cooked up by the FBI to trick gullible individuals that they were in on an ISIS plot.
Before the weekend, Adam Johnson put together an astounding list of how Homeland Security and the FBI are 0 for 40 in their last 40 predictions for terrorist attacks inside the US — raising serious questions about why the news media actually takes any of these “warnings” seriously. And that doesn’t even get into the fact that DHS and the FBI have failed to stop actual plots like the Boston bombing. Here’s the list that Johnson put together:
October 2001: “Potential use of chemical/biological and/or radiological/nuclear weapons“
November 2001: California bridges
February 2002: “Hollywood studios”
May 2002: Statue of Liberty
June 2002: “Around the Fourth of July holiday”
July 2002: Stadiums
August 2002: “Landmarks”
October 2002: “AQ to attack Amtrak”
November 2002: “Spectacular Al Qaeda attacks”
February 2003: “Apartments, hotels, sports arenas and amusement parks“
May 2003: “Possibility of multiple attacks”
May 2004: “Attempt to affect the outcome” of presidential election
July 2004: “Military facilities and large gatherings” on July 4th
August 2004: VA hospitals
January 2005: Dirty bomb
March 2005: US/Mexican border
October 2005: NYC & Baltimore subways
March 2006: “Sporting events”
June 2007: Colleges
December 2007: “Shopping malls in Chicago and LA”
November 2008: “Al Qaeda to attack transit during Thanksgiving”
November 2010: Mass transit in New York City
October 2011: “Americans in Europe” facing “commando-style AQ attack”
February 2011: “Financial institutions”
May 2011: “Threats of retaliation”
June 2011: Al Qaeda “hit list”
September 2011: “Small planes”
September 2011: “New York City or Washington around…10th anniversary of 9/11”
September 2011: Airports
March 2012: “Terrorist hacking”
August 2012: Anarchists blowing up bridge during Tampa RNC
September 2012: “Islamic violence over movie”
August 2013: “San Fransisco on high alert”
November 2013: “cyber attacks”
April 2014: “College students abroad”
December 2014: ISIS targeting Mississippi River bridge
December 2014: ISIS “sabotaging US military personnel” over social media
April 2015: ISIS targeting “parts of California”
May 2015: ISIS targeting “military bases”
And now we can add this past weekend, making them 0 for 41.
Johnson highlights three reasons why these warnings still get issued:
- The FBI has all the incentive in the world to issue warnings and no incentive whatsoever tonot issue warnings. Issuing warnings has no downside, while not doing so is all downside.
- The FBI, like all agencies of the government, does not operate in a political vacuum. Emphasizing the “ISIS threat” at home necessarily helps prop up the broader war effort the FBI’s boss, the president of the United States, must sell to a war-weary public. The incentive is to therefore highlight the smallest threats. This was a feature that did not go unnoticed during the Bush years, but has since fallen out of fashion.
- It has no actual utility. What does it mean to be “more vigilant”? It’s a vague call to alertness that officials, aside from “beefing up security” by local police, never quite explain what it means. If the FBI wanted to tell local police departments to up their security of the 4th of July weekend, surely they could do so quietly, without the chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security having to go on all major networks talking over b-roll of ISIS in apocalyptic terms.
There’s also one other reason which is related to the first reason above, but is slightly different: ifthere is actually a big terrorist attack (and not one they can wave off), DHS and FBI officials will be hauled before Congress and asked why they didn’t spot it or warn about it. So this is, once again, an example of officials wanting to cover their own asses. As we noted recently in explaining why surveillance state defenders don’t care that the programs they defend don’t work, a lot of the mental calculus involves covering their own asses in the event something bad does happen. No one wants to have to explain that what they did was useless, so they feel the need to “do something.” Combine that with the near total lack of downside, and of course, there are going to be random predictions based on nothing.
So the real question, though, is how come cable news feels the need to fall for it too? As Tevor Timm notes, all this really does is help terrorists in “terrorizing” the American public:
All of this doesn’t mean that a terrorist attack on US won’t eventually happen. Simple math tells us that, no matter the precautions taken or the civil liberties taken away, one may get through. But it is a rare event, and one which human beings have lived with throughout our history. By magnifying it and terrifying everyone, we’re only doing the terrorists’ job for them.
And the cable news teams are helping this right along…