David Johnston, Don Van Natta Jr., and Judith Miller, three of the Times' most senior reporters, recently filed this front-page lead:
"A group of midlevel operatives has assumed a more prominent role in Al Qaeda and is working in tandem with Middle Eastern extremists across the Islamic world, senior government officials say. They say the alliance, which extends from North Africa to Southeast Asia, now poses the most serious terrorist threat to the United States."
In other words, a shadowy, diffuse group has, ominously, mutated into an even more shadowy and diffuse affair.
The three reporters go on to note that, according to their government sources, "this new alliance of terrorists, though loosely knit, is as fully capable of planning and carrying out potent attacks on American targets as the more centralized network once led by Osama bin Laden."
In other words, even though the U.S. has, for the past ten months, focused all of its military and intelligence might on Muslim-fundamentalist radicals, the threat, apparently, has not at all dimmed.
Indeed, investigators at the FBI and CIA tell Johnston, Van Natta, and Miller that "the war in Afghanistan failed to diminish the threat to the United States," and in fact, "the war might have complicated counterterrorism efforts by dispersing potential attackers across a wider geographic area."
The Times story then names seven men -- all of whom have previously been identified as having been involved in terror acts -- as the key operatives in this worldwide network of "decentralized terror cells" (what analysts are calling, the story says, "the international jihad") that "has emerged from the scattered remains of Al Qaeda."
Meanwhile, in its most public action to date to thwart terrorism and protect the U.S. from further attacks, the FBI has arrested a Puerto Rican former Chicago gang member who converted to Islam and who is said to have been plotting to set off a dirty bomb -- or at least to have downloaded a plan for such a bomb from the Internet. The other most prominent suspect in the resilient new Al Qaeda network now in custody is Richard Reid, that shoe-bomber guy.
So what's wrong with this picture? Not just with the Times' portrait of a resurgent Al Qaeda, but with virtually all the breathless media accounts of the international jihad, as well as with the more and more detailed presentations by the White House, FBI, CIA, and Homeland Security representatives depicting this elusive threat.
For one thing, everything fits. If connecting the dots was a problem before 9/11, now everything is part of a carefully drawn schematic. All elements are easily, almost lovingly, incorporated into the story, even the oddest elements -- Jose Padilla, the gangbanger turned Islamic revolutionary, being among the oddest.
For another, we've built a major black-is-white logic reversal into the very nature of the threat: Although we've killed countless members of the enemy group, including much of its leadership, disrupted its infrastructure, captured reams of intelligence on its activities, it's suddenly stronger than ever before. Likewise, we ascribe substantial organizational talents to what we also describe as uniquely disorganized. This new group has become, the Times story implies, a threat not least of all because it is less a group than the former group, which itself was notable for its loose-knitness (although, in comparison with the new group, the former group was apparently a model of central governance). By the logic we are applying to Al Qaeda and its offspring, we can never prevail. Whatever we do to thwart the enemy just makes it stronger. We are always, because of our size and power and resources, necessarily weaker. (Al Qaeda has something similar, perhaps, to the ghostly powers the Vietnam-era guerrillas were credited with having over conventional military forces.)
Then there is the suspiciously high level of serendipity. In the Times story, the seven men who are named as the new kingpins are men law-enforcement agencies just happened to have substantial dossiers on. All, in fact, are already under indictment for past terror attacks: the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, for instance, or the attack on U.S. soldiers in Somalia in 1993, or the truck bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi. (What's more, these seven men, the Times story notes, all also happen to "possess the managerial skill and authority to carry out attacks.") The cast of characters, in other words, has not been enlarged; rather, in some sense, the new story, or the new version of the old story, seems just to have been written around the existing cast.
Certainly, the sources of information referred to in most accounts of the Al Qaeda goings-on raise all sorts of wait-a-minute questions.
The government keeps crediting its intelligence to "the chatter," or, as the Times story attributes it, to "Internet traffic," which is either a euphemism for the usual vague police and quasi-police reports that pass between intelligence organizations, or some really inept notion of what the Internet is about. What exactly does Internet traffic mean? Are they intercepting e-mail (then why don't we just start spamming the Al Qaeda network)? Are there specific Websites that the terrorists frequent? Chat rooms? Porn sites? Of course, it may be that this invoking of the Internet, the new mother of all knowledge, is merely an effort to mask the fact that what we know, we know from people who are being tortured in Pakistan (itself not normally the best source of information), but as unsettling is the reasonable suspicion that these doughy euphemisms are meant to dignify the fact that the government is as dependent on Google as the rest of us.
Then, perhaps most disconcertingly, the overall narrative itself is patently a dumbed-down rehash. It's Cold War stuff. There is the ubiquitous and yet unknown and unknowable enemy. There's the international jihad, which, with only minor adjustments, replaces the international communist conspiracy. There's the sudden purported hegemony of the Muslim world -- a new Soviet-bloc-style ideological monolith. There is the otherworldly dedication of operatives bent on overthrowing the West. There are the cells. There is the myth of superhuman discipline. There is now, even, the developing Kremlinology of the next tier of men who replace Osama. And at the center of the story, of course, is the bomb. Whether in massive retaliatory form or as a dirty-bomb package, it serves the same effect.
Helpfully, and synergistically, the creation of this new narrative of international shadows and intrigue unfolds against a backdrop of summer spy movies.
Now, having been through the Cold War, we do, actually, understand -- even if we do not necessarily catch ourselves in the act -- why we let a none-too-plausible narrative supersede reality.
There's the existential-void issue: People just can't stand being without a clear plot. They just don't want to hear (likewise, nobody really trusts them to hear) that the threat is scattered, inchoate, and random (the point about spy fiction is to reveal that the scattered, inchoate, and random are part of a greater, devilish design), that there is no script, that men act and conspire inexactly and ineptly and mostly unsuccessfully.
Hence, there's strong pressure to bluff it -- to claim a gimlet-eyed expertise. The bluffers are in high demand (the Times story was a classic in bluffing it -- or, as they say in the newsroom, "packaging what you've got").
Then, of course, for the president, a hard-hitting narrative has lots of political advantages. And having gotten the narrative in place, with a set of accusations and a list of evil men, the White House will invariably milk it. This is not just dishonest. It's also natural reflex. Because what if something bad does happen again? As president, you do want to anticipate a threat. But the corollary is that if you anticipate, you invent.
There is, too, the bureaucracy and how it shapes the narrative. The bureaucracy reflexively minimizes any new challenges that come its way because those challenges require resources it's already allocated. But if those new challenges come to create resources (more funding and better career prospects), the bureaucracy embraces them. The threat becomes all-consuming: international communism, the war on drugs, organized crime. Naturally, the bureaucracy will never make the threat lesser or more nuanced or complex. Rather, it will belabor it and institutionalize it -- as it now, in the form of the proposed 170,000-strong, $40 billion Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, institutionalizes itself.
And there's the media.
We aren't just passive receivers of the narrative; we're writing it. It really doesn't exist without us. Johnston, Van Natta, and Miller (along with pretty much everybody else covering the Al Qaeda beat) are grabbing up all the tidbits of half-information and recycled stuff offered to them by the White House and the intelligence services and are putting together the construct -- the confection.
How come? Why do we get onboard? Why no greater skepticism?
Well, the Times is as worried as the president about "What if?" It's safer to assume the worst than to dispute it.
Then, too, we don't, not unlike the intelligence agencies, really know anything firsthand. Hardly anyone in the media has any experience covering the Muslim world. This whole business got sprung on us as suddenly as on everyone else. Lack of knowledge together with the substantial cost of getting smart is a big hurdle. You can't be too critical of the sources who are willing to dish -- you don't know enough to question them. It's a hermetic information loop.
And, not insignificantly, we who have been entrusted with writing the narrative are bad writers. We embrace clichés, we slight emotions, we get impatient with complexity, we don't know how to express conflicting ideas or impulses. And, in the conventions of bad narrative, we hang the story on the dirtiest-looking person available to hang it on (Osama or Saddam or Khalid Shaikh Muhammad or Mustafa Muhammad Fadhil or Saif al-Adel or Muhsin Musa Matwalli Atwah or, however unlikely, Jose Padilla).
We know the danger of bad narrative. We write it and then find the world getting made in its image. Everybody, writers and politicians and operatives, starts to pick and choose the information bits to support the story line: There are lethal forces in this world moving inexorably and with remarkable agility and with a depth of resources and an amoral, sociopathic dedication and near-supernatural resilience, in our direction. We and everything we love will die unless we transform ourselves in the face of it. The narrative then becomes the conventional wisdom and the basis for national policy (politicians will be elected because of their obeisance to it). While the narrative is thrown together and of poor quality and obviously bogus in so many respects, at least it's ours. It lets us feel like we're in control.