Thursday, August 4, 2011

Abbottabad - New Yorker story challenged

This story could be subtitled: A Journey into Hackistan... This has become a juicy DC academic-policy wonk gossip mongers delight. At first it seems like a substantive debate and then on closer inspection it quickly slides into tweet v tweet. It will probably end there. However in the interests of giving readers an insight into the ramifications of that story the following is offered FYSA.


MIL INT briefly noted Monday Aug 1, essentially for reference, that the New Yorker came out with what might be the first detailed story on the Bin Laden raid. The way the story is crafted it implies deep familiarity with the mission, indeed with the individuals on the mission. For just one of many such examples
Mark, a master chief petty officer and the ranking noncommissioned officer on the operation, crouched on one knee beside the open door of the lead helicopter. He and the eleven other SEALs on “helo one,” who were wearing gloves and had on night-vision goggles, were preparing to fast-rope into bin Laden’s yard. [NYer]

Noted Georgetown South Asia/CT/culture scholar Dr Christine Fair wrote a pretty scathing review on the Registan blog (which is a new source to MIL INT). Fair's is a personal account of her take on the story, some important questions about the sources for the story that she says were ducked by the New Yorker and Nicholas Schmidle during an online chat, and her summation that the conspiracy theorists of the world will unite against America over the story because the author is the son of the deputy commanding general of cyber command. Its good fodder for them, but if they didn't have that point to focus on, they'd have latched on to something else. After all, that is the nature of conspiracy theorists.

Journalists don't divulge sources. Dr Fair is on stronger ground when she criticizes the piece as implying first person accounts - but as a piece in the Post explains, the author says he talked to others very close to those that did the mission. 
As Schmidle describes it, the story was built on about two dozen interviews, including with Brennan and other senior officials. “It’s a circuitous process,” Schmidle said. “One source was willing to share something that gets a second source to talk. That opens up a third source. And then you go back to the first source.”
Bob Woodward has got TOP SECRET code word stuff from NSC principals using that technique.  Perhaps the New Yorker should have made a note of how the piece was assembled but MIL INT is not sure that it is as big a deal as Dr Fair makes out.

The fact that the son is a journalist and the father a senior military commander is not in itself remarkable beyond the way that combination of careers might appear to others in the context of what is clearly a hot story. It is not unreasonable to speculate that Gen Schmidle probably had no idea what was taking place in Pakistan on the night of May 1 - given the organizations involved were outside his chain of command. After the fact, if he had any sense of career protection he would be incredibly foolish to divulge any details to anyone not cleared and with a need to know - let alone his journalist son. You don't get to be Deputy CG of a major command steeped in highly classified work (but separate to this mission) by being casual about classified matters. There is the 1:1000000 chance but the odds are not strong. Prima facie Dr Fair's implied criticism on familial grounds just does not add up.

Dr Fair makes much of the use of religious language in the piece as inflammatory in the Muslim world. One wonders whether Dr Fair assesses Islamist rhetoric as closely for its impact on the sensibilities of others? Moreover, those sympathetic to the message of Islamists dont seem to need much excuse to get excited about much anyway (Scandinavian cartoons anyone?). Does Dr Fair do a disservice to the intelligence of the vast majority of the world's Muslims by seeming to imply that they will be offended, or worse, by the storyline of an anecdotal, cinematic written, puff piece?

Perhaps one of the people commenting on this uniquely Washingtonian storm in a tea cup said it best:
I have to admit that crashing a billion-dollar sci-fi helicopter into a pig-sty in order to kill an single unarmed man is the best metaphor I’ve heard for America’s post-911 foreign policy in a bit!
[Disclaimer: MIL INT has met Dr Fair on one occasion and admired her. MIL INT does not know any other players in the story mentioned here. It is hoped Dr Fair will read this commentary not as a personal attack but as a straight forward rejoinder to the issues she raised].

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