Last night’s post about Anwar al-Awlaki shows that I should stay away from variations of the word “break” in the context of news reporting. Used inaccurately, or at least incompletely, it can create the misimpression that one is erroneously assigning credit – or even personally claiming credit – for someone else’s good work.
To begin with the easy part, I am not a reporter and I do not break news or claim credit for breaking it. I am an analyst. I rely on the reporting of a number of terrific journalists whose reliability is well established, and on significant reporting by journalists whom I know less well but whose work can be corroborated.
In that spirit, I do not, and did not, claim to have revealed any new news about Awlaki. Rather, (a) two years ago, based on new reporting by others about Awlaki, I concluded – based on my own experience in prosecuting criminal cases and dealing with informants – that the government’s claims about its dismissal of a pending case against Awlaki did not make sense, and that it had probably tried to use him as an informant; and then (b) in last night’s post, I contended that new revelations, brought to light by others, bore out the legal analysis I had offered two years ago.
Now to the trickier part: assigning credit correctly. I always try to give credit to the reporting I rely on. In my Awlaki post two years ago, I credited a report by Fox’s Catherine Herridge. I did not claim that Ms. Herridge was the first to break the news that the government had intervened on Awlaki’s behalf to “un-arrest” him in October 2002. I credited her with breaking the narrower news that an FBI official had admitted that the government knew Awlaki was about to return to the U.S. before the Justice Department intervened on his behalf – a detail which proved the falsity of government’s original story that its dismissal of a felony arrest warrant for Awlaki was sheer coincidence.
My 2012 post then went into the background on Awlaki – both the evidence against him and his dealings with the government. For that, one of my main sources was the excellent Paul Sperry. I had also relied and lavishly credited him in my 2010 book, The Grand Jihad – in addition to his Awlaki reporting, Mr. Sperry’s work on the Muslim Brotherhood and its American network has been essential.
In his own invaluable 2005 book, Infiltration, Mr. Sperry had been the first (at least to my knowledge) to report on Awlaki’s “un-arrest.” This is no secret: Ms. Herridge has extensively credited him (including in her own superb 2011 book, The Next Wave); so did ABC news in a 2009 report that discussed Awlaki in the context of the Fort Hood massacre. I cited Mr. Sperry twice in my 2012 post, although not specifically on the “un-arrest” details. I meant no slight to Mr. Sperry (again, I’ve admiringly cited his work many times); it was simply a matter of Ms. Herridge’s then-new report about the FBI official’s testimony being the jumping-off point for my post.
In last night’s post, I observed that Ms. Herridge and Judicial Watch had stayed on the case. By saying this, I did not mean to imply that no one else had stayed on the case or done critical work on it. But I was writing about a report by Ms. Herridge a couple of days ago that was based on documents that Judicial Watch’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit forced the government to disclose.
In describing Ms. Herridge’s years-long coverage of the Awlaki story, I stated that it was she “who in 2012 broke the news about Awlaki’s mysterious un-arrest a decade earlier.” This was a poor use of “broke” on my part. As just explained, what Ms. Herridge reported on in 2012 was the FBI official’s admission about an important detail concerning the “un-arrest.” News of the “un-arrest” itself had been broken years earlier by Mr. Sperry. Indeed, the new reporting by Ms. Herridge that I linked in last night’s post includes the following:
Previously obtained records show that in 2002, within days of al-Awlaki’s re-entry to the U.S., he showed up in [FBI agent Wade] Ammerman’s counterterrorism investigation in Virginia into Ali al-Timimi, who is now serving a life sentence on non-terrorism charges. [* See ACM note, below.] On Oct. 22, 2002, 12 days after the imam’s return, another FBI memo obtained through the Judicial Watch federal lawsuit (marked “Secret”) includes the subject line “Anwar Nasser Aulaqi” [ACM: i.e., Awlaki] and “Synopsis: Asset reporting.” The existence of the customs entry records was first documented by author Paul Sperry.
Hopefully, this gives credit where credit is due. It was not my intention to avoid doing that.
*ACM note: I assume Ms. Herridge meant that al-Tamimi was not charged under the federal code’s specific international terrorism statutes, which is true. I would not, however, describe the case against him as based on “non-terrorism charges.” He was, after all, convicted of inciting a terrorist war against the United States, attempting to aid the Taliban (a terrorist organization), and inciting the use of firearms and explosives. These are charges very similar to those in my own prosecution against Omar Abdel Rahman (“the Blind Sheikh”) in 1995 – a year before anti-terrorism law was overhauled and specific international terrorism statutes were enacted. The Blind Sheikh was convicted of, among other things, conspiring to levy a terrorist war against the United States, conspiring to bomb, and inciting attacks against American military installations. These were clearly terrorism charges even though the applicable statutes did not include the term “terrorism.”