Damage Control

Sometimes the smallest word repetition can create mischief, as with the following back-to-back sentences from the front page of Friday's New York Times, early editions:

"Mr. Clinton returned to the White House this afternoon from his vacation on Martha's Vineyard, where he was trying to repair family relations damaged by his admission on Monday of an intimate relationship with a White House intern.

Pentagon officials said they had no immediate estimate of damage or casualties."

Soon, however, the Times came to share Clinton's presumed position, i.e., it's none of the Pentagon's goddamned business what he's done to his family. The second sentence did not appear in the paper's later editions.

Goodbye to Mutawakil

Even without the embarrassing juxtapositions, the Times seemed baffled by the newsmorph from intern bombshell to international bombings. Alone among major U.S. dailies last Thursday, the Times tried to convince readers that the fundamentalist Taliban leadership of Afghanistan was about to negotiate with the Clinton administration for the extradition of Osama bin Laden, the man the U.S. blames for the embassy bombings in Africa.

"In Afghanistan, a high-ranking official of the Taliban opened the door today to such discussions," read the second sentence of the front-page story by Timesmen Steven Erlanger, James Risen, and Tim Weiner. The official in question was Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, whom the Times described as "the spokesman for the Taliban and the second-highest ranking official of their Supreme Council."

Mutawakil, who had never been quoted in the Times before, told the paper: "If you call someone a terrorist, you must have proof. If there is proof, we will certainly sit down and talk to the U.S."

Every other major American paper that day published a diametrically opposed account. The Washington Post, for example, wrote: "[L]eaders of the Taliban movement said today that the Taliban is satisfied bin Laden was not behind the embassy bombings -- and that it would not hand him over to another country even if he were involved."

Times editors were so pleased with their Taliban "scoop" that they made Mutawakil's pronouncement the "Quotation of the Day" and sent the story out to be picked up on wire services.

The problem, of course, is that before most readers got to this give-negotiations-a-chance story, the U.S. government had already made the decision to send cruise missiles into territory controlled by the Taliban -- thus making any attempt at negotiating extradition a surefire bomb. Not surprisingly, Mutawakil has disappeared from the pages of the Times.

Does this mean that the administration tricked the Times into believing that serious extradition talks, rather than force, were its uppermost strategy? After all, the paper had enough confidence to make the A1 headline: "U.S. Seeks a Way to Draw Suspect From Afghanistan." The interview with Mutawakil was conducted by Risen; he did not return a message left at the Times's Washington bureau.

Sleeping With The Enemy

Did bin Laden, our newest Enemy Number One, once polish his terror resume with the aid of the U.S. taxpayer? Were the Afghanistan camps hit last week actually built by the CIA?

You could find as many answers to these thorny questions as you wanted last week, depending on whom you listened to and when you asked. Not only did the media accounts contradict one another, but in some cases -- notably, again, the Times -- media outfits contradicted themselves.

The most prominent journalist making the charge that bin Laden is to a large extent "one of ours" is Robert Fisk of London's Independent. Fisk is assumed to have some authority on the topic because he interviewed bin Laden at one of his camps in Afghanistan in 1997.

In a Friday morning National Public Radio interview, Fisk charged: "Most of the big camps -- and they were all, in that area, built by the CIA with British assistance -- would have been set up in 1982, '83, with the specific purpose of training the very same guerrillas they are now firing at to [shoot and attack] Soviet forces."

Morning Edition host Bob Edwards asked: "So if the U.S. built them, it wouldn't have too much trouble finding where they are to target them?" Fisk replied: "No, they were shooting last night at what they had themselves constructed. They set the camps up, they were firing missiles at the camps that they set up, that's correct."

An inquisitive U.S. media would presumably want to explore that notion. But the American press steps very gingerly around the question of CIA culpability. Every detail of the Agency's potential involvement is scrutinized much more rigorously than, say, the evidence of bin Laden's hand in a dozen bombings over the last decade, routinely printed as though it is demonstrated fact.

Asked on Friday about the extent of CIA involvement, Times reporter Tim Weiner said Fisk is simply wrong. Weiner, who traveled with bands of mujahideen in Afghanistan in the '80s, insisted in a Voice interview that the CIA did not physically set up the camps. "CIA officers very, very rarely entered into Afghanistan," preferring instead, Weiner said, to conduct their covert operation from inside Pakistan.

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