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Monday, May 9

A trio of bloggers takes on the Bogeyman and Pundita teaches some old tricks of reporter's trade

We in the media--and the blogosphere counts as media--have a duty to walk on the right side of the fine line between scaremongering and warning. Many in the blogosphere take the duty very seriously. The duty is hard at any time but during war, which generates large amounts of propaganda, counter-propaganda, misinformation and disinformation, it becomes devilishly hard.

Thus, Defense Tech, ZenPundit and Dr. Von are to be commended for setting aside their schedule to look into the hideously complex, highly technical and very scary story on Electromagnetic Pulse weapons (EMPs) that surfaced again last week in World Net Daily, and which was picked up by the John Batchelor Show.

Dr. Von, being the only particle physicist among the lot, gets the last word on the technical aspects of the story.

Defense Tech receives Pundita's special David Letterman Award for calling World Net Daily a Tinhat--short for Tinfoil Hat --publication.

Mark Safranski at ZenPundit is to be commended for somehow pulling together key points made by Defense Tech and Dr. Von and delivering a balanced assessment of how much we should be worrying at this time about an EMP weapon launched at the US from a tramp steamer.

This still leaves open the question, "Why now?" For the answer we must get historical, as Paris Hilton might say, or as Alfred Hitchcock might have said, set up the plot.

It all began one dark and stormy night back in the 1990s, when the CIA received a phone call from a gaggle of unemployed Russian nuke scientists and KGB/GRU defectors.

"Hello? Between us spoke good English. We have knowledge between us to blow galaxy up. If not hiring, we can try Pyongyang."

Happily for the continuation of the historical, the person on the other end of the phone had enough sense not to hang up.

How do you keep a gaggle of Russian defense tech experts and spooks happily and gainfully employed? Here in Washington we have the tradition of setting up a commission to handle delicate human resources situations. But first must come The Book, to introduce credentials and provide the rationale for establishing a commission.

By October 1999 The Book, KGB, had been published and so the Military and Research and Development Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services was ready to hear from Russian experts about the threat to military and civilians from an EMP bomb.

That being the trickiest part of the Clinton era, which was never kind to defense expenditures anyhow, it was not until October 30, 2000, that Clinton signed the FY2001 National Defense Expenditure Authorization Act, which brought the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from EMP Attack (EMP Commission for short) into existence.

Then came the presidential election, then came everybody on the Hill and at the Pentagon sorting through the shock of Bush and Neocons in the White House. Then 19 guys with box-cutters as weapons demonstrated that with some ingenuity, planning and a suicidal bent, you didn't need hi-tech weaponry to launch a catastrophic attack on the USA.

Then came the Department of Homeland Security. At last count the DHS is made up of five million agencies, all of them wrangling with each other over budget allocations. It's just here that we again pick up the tale of the EMP Commission, which Pundita has pieced together by studying recent World Net Daily reports filed by Joseph Farah. All the reports (and the Washington Post op-ed piece by Kyl) can be found by following links in Farah's May 2 report for World Net Daily.

I've bolded every reference to the EMP Commission, so the thread is clear:

Sometime in Early 2005
Peter Fonash, acting deputy manager for the National Communications System in the Department of Homeland Security, says the agency has "determined that there is minimal EMP effect."

March 2005
The EMP Commission is called upon by one congressional committee or subcommittee or another to justify its continued existence. The EMP Commission testifies that the EMP threat is not being taken seriously by the Department of Homeland Security. The commission explains that the Department of Defense has received briefings at the highest levels but that equivalent briefings have not been conducted at DHS "yet."

(Translation: DHS kept saying their briefing schedule was full up.)

April 2005
The Washington Post publishes an op-ed by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Chairman, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security. Kyl warns in the direst terms of the threat from an EMP attack and offers that "Iran has surprised intelligence analysts by describing the mid-flight detonations of missiles fired from ships on the Caspian Sea as 'successful' tests."

(In other words, what looked like a test failure was read by experts on the EMP Commission as a sure sign that Tehran was fiddling with making an EMP bomb. A fact that Tehran would know, I might add.)

Kyl finally gets down to brass tacks by noting: "Fortunately, hardening key infrastructure systems [against EMP bomb attack] and procuring vital backup equipment...is both feasible and -- compared with the threat -- relatively inexpensive, according to a comprehensive report on the EMP threat by a commission of prominent experts [EMP Commission].

"But it will take leadership by the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, and other federal agencies, along with support from Congress, all of which have yet to materialize."

May 2, 2005
Joseph Farah reports for World Net Daily:
WASHINGTON – Former CIA chief James Woolsey affirms the work of a special commission [EMP Commission] investigating the threat of a nuclear-bomb generated electromagnetic pulse attack on the U.S. by rogue states or terrorists and is urging the country to take steps necessary to protect against the potentially devastating consequences.

In testimony before the House International Terrorism and Non-Proliferation Subcommittee, chaired by Ed Royce, R-Calif., Woolsey, director of the CIA from 1993 through 1995, referred to the nuclear EMP threat, characterized in intelligence circles, he said, as "a SCUD in a bucket."

Woolsey commended the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from EMP Attack [EMP Commission] for its years of work on the subject and for its dire report concluding that it is a means of attack that could lead to the defeat of the U.S. by a much smaller enemy and utter devastation of the country.

"That is a very serious threat," he told the committee.... Woolsey, like the commission, specifically mentioned the new dimension a nuclear Iran would add to the risk of such an attack.

"We do not have the luxury of assuming that Iran, if it develops fissionable materials, for example, would not share it under some circumstances with al-Qaida operatives," he said. "We don't have the luxury of believing that just because North Korea is a communist state, it would not work under some circumstances to sell its fissionable material to Hezbollah or al-Qaida."...
From all the above I think it's reasonable to conclude that the EMP Commission is for now safe, by the skin of its teeth, from the budget ax.

Again, I was able to draw that conclusion based on data presented in Farah's reports and the links he provided. Yet The Tale of the EMP Commission is virtually invisible to the eye of the casual reader. It's hidden because the reader's mind is focused on dire predictions about what an EMP bomb can do, descriptions of what it is, and a mixture of speculation and intel regarding recent enemy activities. However, all that exposition tracks back or specifically quotes testimony given before committees and/or subcommitees -- testimony given to defend the work of the EMP Commission.

So what does it all mean? It means that the consumer of news has to learn to think like an old-school reporter--a reporter well-trained in ferreting out the traditional Four W's of a story:

Who (said or did it)?
What (what was said or done)?
Where (where was it said or done)?
When (when was it said or done)?

There is also the "H" (How did it come about?) if the reporter has space for it in the report.

But given the skill of today's disinformation specialists and the general low quality of reporting, I insert an "I" in my list:

Who?
What?
In What Context?
Where?
When?
How?

Asking yourself in what context something is said helps you quickly spot where in the story you've been napping. For example:

Farah's May 2 on EMP is headlined, "Ex-CIA chief warns of EMP nuke threat" and sub-headed, "Woolsey calls on U.S. to defend against devastating 'Scud-in-a-bucket' attack."

So you mentally stop and ask yourself, "In what context did Woolsey give that warning and make that call?"

Farah's report answers the question in the second paragraph:

"In testimony before the House International Terrorism and Non-Proliferation Subcommittee, chaired by Ed Royce, R-Calif., Woolsey, director of the CIA from 1993 through 1995, referred to the nuclear EMP threat, characterized in intelligence circles, he said, as "a SCUD in a bucket."

But back up: What about the first paragraph? Why didn't he mention at the beginning of his piece the Who, What, Where, When and In What Context Woolsey spoke?

Okay, let's look again at the first paragraph:

"WASHINGTON – Former CIA chief James Woolsey affirms the work of a special commission investigating the threat of a nuclear-bomb generated electromagnetic pulse attack on the U.S. by rogue states or terrorists and is urging the country to take steps necessary to protect against the potentially devastating consequences."

The "special commission" is our old friend by now, the EMP Commission. Farah names the commission in the fourth paragraph:

"Woolsey commended the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from EMP Attack for its years of work on the subject and for its dire report concluding that it is a means of attack that could lead to the defeat of the U.S. by a much smaller enemy and utter devastation of the country. "That is a very serious threat," he told the committee. "

Most of the balance of the report is given to expanding on the dire warnings and predictions. Some of the data he presents easily gives rise the Tinfoil Hat dig. But if you get hung up on that data you tend to forget the context in which Woolsey is speaking.

You won't lose your bearings if you remember that Woolsey is talking to a congressional committee that has budget on its mind, and which is wanting to know just what the heck the EMP Commission has been doing for years to justify its existence. In short, he's on a mission to persuade, so of course he's full throttle.

If you tell me it would be helpful if Farah had specifically mentioned that--well, here we come to the need to be a defensive news consumer. Farah doesn't exactly run with people who have excellence in journalism as their top priority. He has an agenda to push. That observation holds true for many who report the news.

I don't know Mr. Farah's career or even whether he's primarily a reporter; he could be an intelligence analyst who also does reporting. I rarely read World Net Daily and only glance at the Counterintelligence Blog, to which Farah contributes--and only when I want to catch wind of defense tech/intel doings on the Hill or at various Washington agencies.

But Mr. Farah's career and his particular skill set are irrelevant to my points. People who earn their living by massaging data into news reports range on a scale from 'average bias'--of the kind you and I and most people bring to studying data--all the way up through highly trained propagandists.

I interject there are several gradations on the scale between those two extremes. One is 'spin doctor'--someone with PR or marketing skills who is good at directing the data consumer's attention to the positive data.

Bad reporting is also one gradation--people who simply have not been adequately trained to report; they're been trained to promote an agenda; e.g., 'watchdogging' the US government.

It's such observations that cause many news consumers to throw up their hands. Many are very cynical about the news media. However, that cynicism is dangerous if it leads to tuning out the news or to a wholesale rejection of a news story. Thomas Jefferson and many others have correctly warned that democracy depends on an informed citizenry. So you need to stay tuned in.

And most news stories are not a pack of lies. They are mixture of analysis and opinion that shades perception of the story by emphasis on certain facts and by omission or addition of facts.

So you've got choices:

> You can sit around and complain about the sorry state of reporting.
> You can tune out the news.
> You can find news sources that don't irritate you, so that you're getting mostly reinforcement for your own views.
> You can learn to think like a good reporter while you're taking in the news.

If you want to go for the last choice, which Pundita recommends, here's a tip: It helps at first to take in the news via print versions or to print out reports you read on the Internet. Then use a magic marker to highlight the Who, What, In What Context, Where, When, and How. After a while, you won't need a physical highlighter; you can do it in your head. Practice.

For more on the EMP commission and a good layman's description of EMP and the various threats it poses, see the Heritage Foundation's August 2004 report .
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