Accuracy in Media

It has come weeks late, but CNN’s Wolf Blitzer has dramatically knocked down one of former counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke’s claims.  He got the truth from the border patrol agent right in the middle of it.  And after it was all over, Clarke was conveniently not available for comment.

Here’s the way Blitzer set up the piece on CNN: “Who prevented the millennium bomb plot targeting Los Angeles International Airport?  It’s just one of a number of disagreements between the Bush administration and its former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke.”  The issue was what was behind the December 14, 1999, arrest of Algerian-born Ahmed Ressam at Port Angeles, Washington.  He was on his way to plant a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport.

How was he nabbed?  Blitzer said the Clarke version is that the Clinton administration had border agents “on high alert” and were on the lookout for terrorists.  But Bush official Condoleezza Rice said the Clinton administration had nothing to do with the capture and that credit goes largely to one agent.  Blitzer then interviewed that agent, Diana Dean, who described how she questioned Ressam and he began appearing “very, very nervous and he was very agitated.”  She explained, “And I knew we were going to take a closer look at him to make sure that everything was okay with him.  So I asked him to turn his car off and complete a customs declaration for us, which is something we always do prior to a secondary inspection.”  Eventually, they examined the trunk of his car and found “big bags of [explosive] powder in there.”  Ressam started running and he was chased down.  The search continued and timers and other materials were found.

But was this scrutiny because of some directive from the White House?  Blitzer wondered if Washington had ordered the border agents to be on “heightened alert in advance of the millennium or was this just business as usual?”  Dean said, “This was just business as usual.  That’s what we do.  We look for somebody out of the ordinary that just needs a little closer look.  And that’s what he was at that time.”  When Blitzer pressed her, she said, “we weren’t on higher state of alert.  We did not have an alert system at that time.  And, no?it was pretty much business as usual for us.”

Realizing that Richard Clarke’s version of the story had been blown out of the water, Blitzer concluded the interview by saying, “We tried to reach Richard Clarke today to get his reaction to Diana Dean’s story.  We’ve been unable to speak with him so far.  We hope to speak with him at some point.”

On April 12, Mike Carter of the Seattle Times tackled the controversy.  Setting up the conflict between Rice and Clarke, he reported, “At least one of the agents who helped apprehend Ressam sides with Rice’s version of events.”  Michael Chapman, one of the customs agents who arrested Ressam, told Carter there was no special security alert. “We were on no more alert than we’re always on,” he said.  “That is a matter of public record.”  Carter added that a review of the trial testimony in the Ressam case turned up no reference to a security alert.  No wonder Clarke was unavailable for comment on CNN.

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