Las Vegas Sun

August 22, 2017

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Columnist Jeff German: Media got it wrong on terrorism

Sheriff Bill Young wasn't a happy camper when he returned to work Monday morning from a week's vacation in the Bahamas with his family.

Young was fuming over the hatchet job the media did on Las Vegas law enforcement authorities last week in their rift with Detroit federal prosecutors over a high-profile terrorism case.

"I'm disappointed with some members of the media," Young said. "Obviously there were statements made by folks back there that weren't true."

Las Vegas was erroneously portrayed as a community that didn't take seriously the discovery of tourist-like videotapes of Strip casinos found in the hands of suspected terrorists two years ago. One tape was found in Detroit, and the other in Spain.

The story, distributed by the Associated Press and picked up in newspapers across the country, was generated by a Detroit federal prosecutor who has been reassigned and put under investigation for misconduct in the 2003 terrorism case.

Do you think he had an ax to grind?

Young said the media should have been more skeptical of the prosecutor's claims before rushing into print with the story.

This was not one of the media's shining moments.

But as bad as the media looked, last week's furor underscores a more serious problem in the war on terrorism -- the failings of the way the government disseminates intelligence.

"The Sept. 11 Commission pointed out serious flaws," Young said. "This is an example of what's wrong. There are too many hands in the mix."

And too many mixed signals from Washington.

In the Detroit case federal prosecutors, while putting several members of a suspected al-Qaida cell on trial last year, argued that the 1997 Detroit tape was a serious effort by terrorists to target Las Vegas. They called a witness at the trial who testified the defendants talked about Las Vegas as the "City of Satan."

But when the tape was shown to local authorities and casino security chiefs months before the trial, the consensus here was that it did not pose a threat. It looked like any other tourist tape, and it turned out to be made by a group of innocent teenagers.

Homeland Security Department officials in Washington didn't discourage that analysis. They insisted, as they continue to insist, that there have never been any credible threats to Las Vegas.

So which arm of the government are we supposed to believe? The Justice Department, which is trying to prove a terrorism case in court? Or the Homeland Security Department, which has the task of keeping us safe?

If we're going to feel safe, we have a right to expect continuity in the dissemination process from Washington.

At least give local authorities proper direction.

Las Vegas authorities who viewed the Spanish tape, which contained 1999 footage of casinos and other landmarks, such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, found no evidence of an immediate al-Qaida threat. So, just as they did with the Detroit tape, they took no further action and decided against informing the public.

California authorities who saw the tape, on the other hand, issued a public alert and stationed more security around the Golden Gate Bridge.

The contrasting reactions took place because no one in Washington told authorities in either state the correct way to respond to the tape.

That's not very comforting in a war against an enemy we can't see.

It's all the more reason for the media to be extra cautious and avoid the shallow reporting we saw last week.

The media doesn't need to do any hatchet jobs on the people fighting the war on terrorism.

The leaders of the fight in Washington are doing a pretty good job of that themselves.