Saturday, November 12, 2005

If Credit's What Matters . . .

In the course of a discussion on yesterday's edition of Fox News' Dayside about Bush's Veterans' Day speech, one of the right-leaning guests asked why the president hasn't received more credit from the mainstream media for all the terrorist attacks that haven't happened since 9/11. That sounded like a pretty fair question, so I figured I'd take the time to look for some answers. One of the first intuitions that should spring to mind is that journalism has an inherent bias in favor of actual events as opposed to, you know, non-events, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that we never wake up to headlines like "No Terror Attacks Since 9/11; Credit Goes To Bush." So there's that, but the larger question remains: can the long streak of recent terrorist inaction be attributed to Bush's actions?

One of the first pieces of analysis I found, if you can call it that, comes from prominent conservative law prof and blogger Ann Althouse, who had this to say a little over a month ago:
It's hard to claim credit for the absence of an event. WaPo reports:
President Bush said today the United States and its allies have disrupted at least 10 serious plots by the al Qaeda network in the past four years, as he sought to rally the nation against international terrorists and warned foreign governments against supporting them....

He added, "We've stopped at least five more al Qaeda efforts to case targets in the United States or infiltrate operatives into our country."...

Bush did not elaborate.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan later identified two of the three schemes to carry out attacks in the United States as previously alleged plots involving Jose Padilla, a Puerto Rican convert to Islam who was suspected of planning to detonate a radiological "dirty bomb," and Lyman Farris, a naturalized U.S. citizen and truck driver from Ohio who was allegedly recruited to destroy New York's Brooklyn Bridge, blow up airliners on the ground and derail passenger trains. Both men were arrested after being identified by captured al Qaeda commanders, and neither plot got beyond a reconnaissance stage.

McClellan said other plots Bush referred to are "still classified."

ADDED: To be clear, I certainly think credit is deserved for stopping attacks. My point is that people don't notice and don't give you credit. Everything just seems uneventful.
Not really Althouse's most original interpretive moment, as you can see. But let's look at the facts: out of the ten plots that the US and its allies supposedly foiled, only three were directed at the United States. These were José Padilla's plans to detonate a 'dirty bomb' and two thinly described schemes to attack the east and west coasts with commercial airplanes a la 9/11. We knew when Padilla was captured in 2002 that he was nowhere near prepared to carry out any terrorist activities, so it's difficult to count his arrest as a "foiled plot" (emphasis mine):
But as the (not quite radioactive) dust settled on Ashcroft's dramatic announcement, some began asking not only why Mr. Padilla, a U.S. citizen, was being held in a Navy brig as an "enemy combatant," but also why he was dominating America's headlines — and its nightmares. Within hours of Ashcroft's announcement, administration officials were pointing out that Padilla had no radioactive material or any other bomb-making equipment. Nor had he chosen a target, or formulated a plan. And while his connections with al-Qaeda operatives were never in doubt, he suddenly began to look a lot more like the accused shoe-bomber Richard Reid (i.e. another disaffected ex-con from the West desperate to get in with al-Qaeda) than like the sophisticated professionals who put together September 11.
Details on the two plane schemes are still mostly classified, though the Post article tells us that Khalid Sheik Mohammed was involved with one of them, and that he may have scrapped it prior to 9/11. And since the White House won't disclose any more information about them, the question of how much credit Bush should be given for stopping terrorism against the USA remains open. But we have found another answer to our esteemed commentator's initial question about why the media hasn't covered the issue more thoroughly: the administration simply hasn't given them much to write about. Whether that's due to national security concerns or because there's nothing to say is known only to a few at the top.