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January 7, 2004
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Put Spotlight on Bin Laden
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By Russ Baker


Well, he's back. Another audiotape from Osama bin Laden has just been aired X and the speaker's identity confirmed.

It ran, of course, on the Al Jazeera cable network, which says it played only 14 of 47 minutes for its Arabic-speaking audiences. The rest of us, notably the presumed future targets of the man and his acolytes, got just very short summaries in our electronic, digital and print media.

We probably missed a lot, and that's a bad thing. No matter how despicable Bin Laden is, his message is important. It's therefore both surprising and disappointing that Western media haven't made more of an effort to scrutinize and publicly discuss the exact nature of the threat he poses, as laid out by the man himself. As unpleasant as the topic is, we'd be better off with fewer color-coded alerts and more attention to the seriousness, logic, focus, content and persuasiveness of Bin Laden's appeal to anti-Western sentiment around the world.

But we don't get that, in part because American news organizations have for the last two years adopted a policy of pre-censoring the public pronouncements of Al Qaeda's leadership. A closer look at this practice reveals how self-defeating it is.

When the first post-9/11 videotape appeared, the Bush administration cautioned the media not to run more than brief excerpts, warning that it could contain coded instructions for more acts of terror. But in an interview, National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack showed how foggy this rationale was. Videotapes "broadcast in their entirety over the air could be a way for Bin Laden and Al Qaeda to send messages to their followers and their group," McCormack said last year. But he went on to concede that there is no specific evidence that this has ever been done, just vague "concerns."

The fact is, nearly two years after the Sept. 11 attacks, with numerous Al Qaeda officials in custody, there's still no indication of coding at all.

The censorship began with a conference call in which national security advisor Condoleezza Rice got an agreement with ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and Fox to "screen" tapes before broadcasting audio or video. Since then, numerous videos and audios have been aired, but only in some "screened," or heavily censored, form.

Whatever the justification for keeping the public away from such material, this last February, during the lobbying for an Iraq invasion, the White House suddenly did an about-face. Citing a new tape as proof of ties between Al Qaeda and Iraq, Secretary of State Colin Powell actually promoted its upcoming airing on Al Jazeera. Following Powell's cue, Fox News treated the release as breaking news, becoming the first U.S. network to air the full 16-minute audiotape (with an English voice-over). Other networks followed, albeit more cautiously, playing just pieces of it.

"There was no indication from the administration that it could present a security concern," Fox Vice President John Moody told the Washington Post. The reason, he implied, was that this new message was an audiotape, not a videotape. The idea was that terrorists can bury more coded digital content inside a videotape. This distinction makes no sense to those knowledgeable about such things.

"If I have to give [an encoded] message that is short and sweet, I can use audio," said Dr. Sushil Jajodia, director of George Mason University's Center for Secure Information Systems. "The claim that somehow audio is OK but video is not X that's absolutely not true."

In any case, as long as overseas Arabic-language channels, which don't take their instructions from the Bush administration, broadcast large portions of the tapes to an audience that presumably includes Al Qaeda operatives, the only result of U.S. media self-censorship is to deprive Americans of seeing and hearing their sworn nemesis firsthand. (The absurdity of airing only censored tapes was compounded by revelations by security experts that Bin Laden has apparently been avoiding all detectable technology and corresponding with his agents via hand-delivered letters.)

We desperately need to find effective ways to engage and comprehend the world beyond the current policy of vengeance and retribution. Media organizations, so effective at transmitting official pronouncements, could start playing a more constructive role by refusing to serve on the Bush administration's news management team and by bringing in smart analysts to tell us what, exactly, Bin Laden is talking about.