On Glenn Greenwald’s Skepticism on Threat Claims About the Khorasan Group

By Jack Goldsmith
Monday, September 29, 2014, 11:56 AM

Glenn Greenwald has a skeptical takedown of the factual basis for the attacks on the Khorasan Group (KG) in Syria, and the American Press’s complicity, based on anonymous USG sources, in spreading war-mongering exaggerations about KG’s imminent threat to the American public.  Greenwald concludes:

So after spending weeks promoting ISIS as Worse Than Al Qaeda™, they unveiled a new, never-before-heard-of group that was Worse Than ISIS™. Overnight, as the first bombs on Syria fell, the endlessly helpful U.S. media mindlessly circulated the script they were given: this new group was composed of “hardened terrorists,” posed an “imminent” threat to the U.S. homeland, was in the “final stages” of plots to take down U.S. civilian aircraft, and could “launch more-coordinated and larger attacks on the West in the style of the 9/11 attacks from 2001.”"

As usual, anonymity was granted to U.S. officials to make these claims. As usual, there was almost no evidence for any of this. Nonetheless, American media outlets – eager, as always, to justify American wars - spewed all of this with very little skepticism. Worse, they did it by pretending that the U.S. Government was trying not to talk about all of this – too secret! – but they, as intrepid, digging journalists, managed to unearth it from their courageous “sources.” Once the damage was done, the evidence quickly emerged about what a sham this all was. But, as always with these government/media propaganda campaigns, the truth emerged only when it’s impotent.

Greenwald is on solid ground in saying that American people have almost no access to actual threat information, and to a great extent must trust the U.S. government, and the U.S. press, for its information about new and emerging threats.  Greenwald is also (obviously) right that we should not reflexively accept what the USG says.  It is also true that some people in the USG sometimes push tendentious threat information to the public, though I think they typically do so not to mislead on purpose, but rather because all persons and institutions (including Greenwald, and I) have a natural tendency to read facts in a self-serving way.  When one faces terrorist threat information, and is responsible for the consequences of that threat, and for building support for the President, one sometimes over-reads the threat facts.  And in the short run, journalists, desperate for access and scoops, sometimes report this information uncritically.  I have no idea if this is what happened with KG, but Greenwald is once again right that the coverage of KG’s imminent threat was initially uncritical and then – a few days after the bombing had begun – became more nuanced and skeptical as last week progressed.  (Here is a notable and interesting exception to the lack of skepticism that runs in the other direction: Andy McCarthy agrees that KG is an invention, but argues that it was invented to cover for the fact that core al Qaeda, contrary to the President’s representations, is still alive and very well.)

There are some interesting puzzles raised by this episode.

One is why President Obama’s claims about newly emerging terrorist threats are not greeted with greater skepticism.  One often hears these days that if President Bush had done these things, there would be much more (and faster) doubt and outrage.  Three factors might explain this.  First, war fever induced by the beheadings might lead many more people than usual not to question the basis for the current airstrikes.  Second, Obama is acting against his perceived natural disposition as anti-war, and thus can act in this direction with fewer questions than could President Bush, who had the opposite reputation.  Despite his pretty relentless war unilateralism, the President is still widely viewed as a reluctant warrior, and thus when he goes to war there is less skepticism (compared to even the pre-Iraq Bush) about its basis.  It’s the “Nixon Goes to China” phenomenon.  (Here is a famous academic paper about it.)  A similar phenomenon with the opposite impact was in play when President Bush got no grief for releasing GTMO detainees or trying terrorists in civilian courts, yet Obama receives much grief for the same things. Third, the politics line up in ways that tamp down skepticism of the President’s war motivations, since his natural critics, Republicans, are generally more belligerent than he is, and the Democrats, while more skeptical of war, don’t want to unduly hurt the President.

A second puzzle is about what an Executive branch can do if it cares to gain more credibility about its terrorist threat reports.  This is a hard problem.  In theory the President could show the public the information on which the threat reports are based.  But this would reveal sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would alert our enemies to how we are watching them, and thus make doing so (and thus our security) harder.  A different solution – explained in this terrific paper by Eric Posner and Adrian Vermeule – is to have an adverse and to some degree independent institution study the information and report on its veracity.  The American Press is supposed to serve this role, and I think that it does over time.  But Greenwald might be right that in a quick run-up to war against a supposedly new terrorist threat, journalists are inadequately skeptical and adverse.  One might think that Congress would be skeptical and adverse, especially members of the opposite party on the Intelligence Committees.  But as just noted, in the current context – hawkish Republicans and a seemingly war-weary Democratic President – Congress does not serve this role well.

I thus think this is a situation where presidential credibility about a new terrorist threat can only be tested over time, through ex post scrutiny, by journalists and others who can take more time to verify claims, and also from leakers.  In theory, a rational president will anticipate ex post scrutiny and not mislead in the short term in a way that will be politically harmful later.  President Bush’s credibility about threat reports plummeted, and never really recovered, after it became clear that Saddam Hussein did not possess WMD.  That said, I tend to doubt that Obama will get much ex post political heat if his administration has in fact exaggerated the imminence of the KG threat.  This is a significant advantage that flows to President Obama from his preference for pinprick war from a distance (drones, manned airstrikes, cyber) with little possible harm to U.S. troops: It invites much less ex post scrutiny at home, compared to a large footprint and body bags.