For the second time in two years, ABC News played “gotcha” journalism with U.S. national security. On the second anniversary of the 9/11 disaster, ABC repeated a stunt that it had staged this time last year. ABC investigative reporter Brian Ross told viewers of “Primetime Thursday” that he had slipped fifteen pounds of depleted uranium past government screeners. In a story aired on 9/11 last year, Ross also claimed to have shipped fifteen pounds of the heavy metal through Customs undetected. ABC then produced experts who told the audience that the screeners’ failure meant that we still do not have the capability to detect “the real thing.” That is a reference to fissile material that actually could be used to fuel a nuclear bomb. The same experts made the same allegations this year. To ABC, this demonstrates how vulnerable we remain to terrorism.
This time around, ABC News selected Los Angeles for the site of its hoax. Last year the target was New York. But as Accuracy in Media wrote at the time, depleted uranium is forty percent less radioactive than the natural uranium commonly found in the ground and river beds and elsewhere. Its main health concern comes from the potential toxicity of its chemical properties rather than radioactivity. Experts told AIM last year that fifteen pounds of depleted uranium would represent an “incredibly small radioactive source, especially if shielded by lead.” ABC placed the depleted uranium inside a lead pipe and then put the pipe in a suitcase. Many believed that the ABC test of our detection capabilities was unfair.
Political opponents of the Bush administration were then shown urging the President to do more to strengthen port security. But a Homeland Security official said, “We targeted it, we inspected it, we confirmed that it was not a danger to America.” Last year, one expert told AIM that ABC might just as well have shipped “fifteen pounds of oranges” for all the danger the depleted uranium represented. Another said that ABC shipped a “worthless piece of junk.”
Worry about port security is not exactly news, especially given the volume of traffic passing through the nation’s ports. Customs has developed a multi-layered defense, but highly- enriched uranium, one source of fuel for nuclear bombs, would be very difficult to detect, especially if it was lead-shielded. Homeland Security officials say that their detection devices are “geared up for the real thing.” And who believes that the Homeland Security Department should disclose its real detection capabilities to a national viewing audience? Like last year, some criticized ABC News for revealing potential vulnerabilities to international terrorists. ABC countered that it was performing a public service by identifying “a dangerous hole” in our security.
One big difference from last year’s report is the government’s reaction this time around. FBI and Homeland Security officials have launched an investigation of ABC News. Last year, AIM reported that fifteen pounds is the upper limit of allowable shipments of depleted uranium. At that time, officials told us that ABC News’ actions were “perfectly legal.” But this time, agents visited the homes of cameramen who shot the piece and one of the experts who appeared on camera.
The government’s response this time around drew immediate criticism from Capitol Hill. Republican Senator Charles Grassley wrote Attorney General John Ashcroft that he was worried about the “chilling effect on legitimate investigative reporting” of the government’s actions. Like last year, ABC did make a false declaration about the shipped material. Last time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission let ABC slide. A Homeland Security official said any decision to prosecute ABC News would be made by the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles. ABC was also displeased that federal officials had questioned network staffers and demanded copies of videotapes. Federal officials defended their actions by noting that members of al Qaeda have posed as journalists in the past. We wonder if ABC will pull the same stunt next year.