Two different stories illustrating problems with press reporting caught my attention, today. I’ve said before that there is little point in trying to point out every error on the Internet but these two struck me as particular examples of newspapers happily passing on incorrect information and perpetuating myths as a result.
It didn’t take long. According to Reuters2, US homeland security averages 55 ‘encounters’ with ‘known or suspected terrorists’ every day. These are people who appear on various watchlists held by the US authorities. The lists started after the September 11th attacks but the number of people recorded on them increased substantial after the December 2009 failed underpants bomb attack on a flight inbound to the USA.
Such lists may be useful but the danger is that the longer they become the less useful they are. Clearly, at the extreme end, any adult could be a threat but security agencies would have no hope of detecting potential attacks if they included everyone on their lists.
There is now a mechanism to appeal one’s inclusion if you find you are having trouble flying following cases where high profile individuals have found themselves unable to fly and used their PR connections to get themselves de-listed. I don’t believe it is possible to check if one is on such a list in advance of making a trip.
The other problem with such lists, of course, is that they remove discretion from officers in the field. This has a ludicrous side as when an 18-month old baby is refused permission to fly because their name matches one on the ‘no-fly’ list. But it also has a serious side because an officer in the field may assume the centre knows better and ignore suspicions about an individual simply because that individual is not listed.
But, discussing the problems with these lists is not my purpose. That is, as above, to point out how myths become facts. The Reuters report says;
‘A new threat to aviation security surfaced earlier this month, in the form of a foiled plot by al Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate to deploy a more sophisticated "underwear" bomb.’
Given that the ‘bomber’ concerned was a CIA agent, there was never a ‘threat to aviation security’ because there was no ‘plot’ and, therefore, nothing to be ‘foiled’.
The second story concerned arrests in the USA over alleged dealing in Catha edulis, khat. It is not a new story but @radleybalko on Twitter drew my attention to it. Last October police and the ‘Drug Task Force’ in Brown County, Wisconsin, arrested three men, of Somali extraction, in connection with a package thought to contain khat.3
I found three things of interest and I’ll go through them in increasing order of wrongness. The first is that the item ends with a link to the federal Justice Department guide to khat. If, as I did, you follow the link you will be taken to a two page leaflet that is over-printed ‘ARCHIVED’ and has a warning that it may be out of date. It seems that the WTAQ reporter didn’t do very extensive research because it is quite easy to find current documents on the DoJ website.
The second item is a quote from Brown County Sheriff John Gossage who says "It's actually pre-pubescent that they're using it". Now given that, earlier in the piece, a member of the Drug Task Force is quoted as saying it was their first ever seizure of khat it is fair to assume that Sheriff Gossage has not studied khat in the same detail as all those people who report that, in general, it is not of interest to young people. Still, suggesting children are at risk is always the easy option for justifying draconian action against substances.
But, it is the third item that is jaw droppingly stupid and caused Radley Balko to tweet. This is the statement, not attributed to anybody other than the unnamed author of the piece, that;
‘If chewed, it has similar effects of LSD and is addictive like heroin.’
derails new al-Qaeda underwear bomb plot The Telegraph 8th
2.U.S. has 55 daily encounters with "suspected terrorists" Reuters carried by Yahoo! News 15th May 2012
3.Khat bust in Green Bay leads to education about new drug WTAQ.COM 18th October 2011