Thursday, July 26, 2007

Headlines, Spin Jobs and Threat Lumping

Bryan Bender's headline article on the front page of the Boston Globe Analyst counters Bush on Al Qaeda: Says biggest threat is in S. Asia, not Iraq is a good example of how the press tries to spin the news.

Reading his piece carefully, we see Bender doing a "spin job" in order to cobble together a seeming contradiction. A contradiction that was not asserted by the congressional witnesses he cites, but instead by “Senator John F. Kerry, who chaired a similar hearing yesterday of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”

Bender fails to identify why it is a contradiction for Bush to say that Iraq is the "main battlefront" (implying there are multiple battlefronts) with al Qaeda. Nor does he say why it should be that Bush’s assertion is inconsistent with the al Qaeda global command center being located somewhere in hinterlands of Pakistan.

For historical comparison, wasn't North Africa at one point the “main battlefront” against Hitler's Germany?

Bender spins the contradiction by engaging in a bit of "threat lumping" (ironically, an accusation made against Bush that he quotes in his piece) of his own.

How does he do it? Bender first “threat lumps” by lumping together for comparison Bush’s characterization of Iraq as the "main battlefront" against al Qaeda with the threat posed by the presence of al Qaeda's global leadership in South Asia. Bender characterizes the latter as the "more immediate threat to the United States."

In making that threat comparison, however, Bender leaves it to his reader to discern that by "immediate threat" he necessarily excludes daily battlefield attacks, mostly in Iraq.

So, while Bender on the one hand “lumps” the relative magnitude of these “threats” together to spin his contradiction, he limits the scope of his definition of “immediate threat” to exclude daily battlefield activity with al Qaeda.

In the end, it’s not clear what Bender really means by “immediate threat” to the United States, evidently he means potential attacks against US interests anywhere but Iraq, or perhaps as limited as attacks on US soil against civilian "soft" targets.

Nevertheless, by excluding daily "battlefront" activity, Bender invalidates the comparison with Bush’s characterization of Iraq as the “battlefront against al Qaeda" that is the thrust of his headline article.

But does that matter once you've grabbed your headline?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

More APing of unsourced "intelligence reports"

Need a reason to question another AP report based on a carefully couched description of an "intelligence report" leaked by an "official and others [who] spoke on condition of anonymity because the secret report remains classified"?

The headlines scream: "Classified Report: Al Qaeda at Pre-9/11 Strength."

Certainly an arresting caption, but what does that mean? To be accurate, wouldn't al Qaida have to be operating at a level comparable to their former camp complex in Afghanistan where every year thousands of jihadis casually cycled in and out from many different countries for terrorist training? But is such international travel even possible today?

Sure enough, a jump to the link reveals the following:
U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded al-Qaida has rebuilt its operating capability to a level not seen since just before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, The Associated Press has learned...

Al-Qaida is "considerably operationally stronger than a year ago" and has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," the official said, paraphrasing the report's conclusions. "They are showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States."

Take each phrase separately and together. What does "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001" really tell us? Suppose at its apex, al Qaida's strength on 9/10 was 100%. Now, wouldn't that assertion hold true even if that strength had been reduced by as much as 99% to 1% in 2002, and rose to only 2% since then?

Again, the same holds true for the phrase "considerably operationally stronger than a year ago," doesn't it? For example, say it was 2% in 2006, and rose to 4% in 2007. A doubling in a year. But still not necessarily anywhere near 9/11 strength.

None of this is an attempt to deny a resurgent threat. It just illustrates a continuing propensity on the part of elements of the press and intelligence community to use words that tend to mislead the casual reader and preserve to themselves the maximum amount of wiggle room after the fact.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Bargain De-basement?

Behold as Barak Obama's "economics guru," Austan Goolsbee, tries to spin a "Grand Bargain" out of the senator's proposal to have taxpayers pick-up the tab for runaway union auto worker fringe benefit costs in exchange for the imposition of more stringent command-and-control corporate average fuel mileage regulations on automakers.

Ironically, Goolsbee had just said that "a regulatory solution, like a mandate, is fundamentally it's not a solution," and that Obama is for market-oriented solutions. Yikes!