Prominent members of the elite Washington journalism community are publicly grappling with how to respond to the Trump administration’s lack of credibility, but when it comes to terror threats, the mainstream media is still breathlessly passing along unsupported statements from anonymous official sources, asking for no evidence and demanding no accountability
The Trump administration’s Muslim laptop ban — new restrictions on bringing laptops and other large electronic devices aboard planes leaving from 10 different airports in eight Muslim-majority countries — has now been justified several times in several different ways, with those justifications accepted on face value by credulous reporters.
On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security put out a Q&A about the ban that cited a recent “trend” of bombings of airplanes in Egypt and Somalia. (Mogadishu airport, the point of entry for the 2016 laptop bomb cited as an example, is not covered by the Trump administration’s restrictions.)
This narrative was repeated in an Associated Press story published on Tuesday, which also summarized the view of unnamed U.S. officials saying that the “decision to bar laptops and tablets from the cabins of some international flights wasn’t based on any specific threat but on longstanding concerns about terrorists targeting jetliners.”
On Tuesday evening, the narrative changed, and the media dutifully followed. The Daily Beast, citing “three intelligence sources,” claimed that the Muslim laptop ban was prompted by intelligence recovered following a U.S. military raid on an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) camp in Yemen in January. The sources claimed that the raid yielded intelligence that al Qaeda was developing small bombs that can fit inside laptops and must be manually activated, thus the ban on laptops in airplane cabins.
But the outcome of the raid in Yemen — which cost the lives of dozens of Yemeni civilians and a Navy SEAL — has become a highly politically charged issue. President Trump used his address to Congress to claim that it “generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemy.” Anonymous officials asserted that that there was no intelligence produced. Trump presented no evidence to support his position; Iona Craig, reporting for The Intercept from the village that was destroyed in the raid, found evidence to the contrary.
So Trump loyalists had an obvious, overt political motive to claim that the raid produced useful intelligence — and reporters had every reason to be skeptical.
The New York Times then reported that four anonymous U.S. officials told Times reporters that the ban was prompted by intelligence showing that ISIS, not AQAP, is developing bombs that can be hidden in portable electronic devices. In that story, the raid in Yemen is not cited as justification.
That makes three different and distinct sets of justifications provided by the Trump administration in one day — all relayed by reporters with little skepticism.
CNN informed viewers on Tuesday night that “tonight sources tell CNN the electronic ban was not prompted by a specific plot, but in part by new intelligence. A U.S. official tells CNN that al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen was perfecting techniques for hiding explosives in the batteries of electronic devices. The information was obtained over recent weeks and months.”
CNN aviation analyst Mary Schiavo noted on Wednesday that “sources … have said that information they picked up in the Yemen raid a while back indicated that AQAP bomb-makers have been training others to replicate the attack that was made on the plane one year ago,” presumably referring to the attempted 2016 Somalia airliner bombing.
Meanwhile, NBC’s Ken Dilanian on Wednesday reported that his sources, two anonymous intelligence officials, told him that there was no connection between the laptop ban and the raid in Yemen.
NBC’s Early Today told viewers on Thursday that “a senior law enforcement official tells NBC News ISIS may be getting help from al Qaeda, a disturbing development following the new electronics ban. It affects flights into the U.S. from eight majority-Muslim countries, and was ordered after intelligence discovered ISIS operatives sought to plant explosives in laptops and other electronics.” A moment later, the network offered a caveat: “Calling the intelligence ‘extremely sensitive,’ intelligence officials would not confirm if ISIS was developing an explosive that could be hidden in a laptop.”
What all these stories have in common is not only their competing claims from anonymous officials, but a lack of any tangible evidence to support them.
This media regurgitation of anonymous government official claims comes even after the Trump administration has repeatedly and deliberately misled Americans on a wide variety of issues — ranging from the number of people who attended President Trump’s inauguration to the bombastic false claim that former President Obama personally wiretapped Trump.
In fact it’s possible that all of those anonymous officials were wrong — and that the laptop ban had nothing to do with security at all. It could simply be a protectionist scheme concocted by Trump to ingratiate himself to the CEOs of the U.S. airlines who have long complained that Gulf-based air carriers are unfairly subsidized by their national governments.