Will Fort Dix plotters turn out to be the next ‘Seas of David’?

Not all terror plots are created equal, as we've found out over the last several years.

Foiling terrorist plots against the United States is no laughing matter, and with the arrest of six men in New Jersey yesterday who were allegedly planning to attack Fort Dix, the threat has been brought home once again.

It’s hard for the press not to run with stories of possible domestic terrorism, and for good reason — it’s serious and scary business. That said, not all plots are created equal, and lumping them all together into one grab bag of thwarted domestic terrorism cases is something reporters should avoid, especially given some of the absurd plots that have been uncovered over the last couple years. This is not to say that all leads shouldn’t be investigated — they should — or that anyone discovered in any stage of planning an attack shouldn’t be scooped up — they should— but we’ve seen a couple of cases in the last few years be blown way out of proportion, and that makes us wonder what the Fort Dix story will become.

The New York Times this morning offers a good example of this grab-bag coverage when it says that the Fort Dix case is “the latest in a series of plots, targeting sites in the United States, that authorities said they have foiled. These included one last June in which seven arrests were made in Miami after the authorities described suspects talking about blowing up the Sears Tower in Chicago and the F.B.I.’s Miami headquarters. In June 2003, the authorities said they thwarted a plot to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge, and in 2002, six Yemeni-Americans from Lackawanna, N.Y., near Buffalo, were arrested and linked with Qaeda interests.”

As we all remember, the men who were planning on blowing up Chicago’s Sears Tower and the F.B.I.’s Miami headquarters last year — the hilariously confused “Seas of David” group — were so inept, so deluded, that the “plot” was the stuff of farce. Yes, the group swore fealty to Al Qaeda (or more precisely, to an informant posing as an Al Qaeda representative), which is enough to put them under surveillance and haul them in for questioning, at the very least. And what they wanted to do was serious enough to make them a threat, albeit one that was overblown by both the Justice Department and the press at the time.

Then there was the “Lackawanna Six,” the group of young men in the town next door to Buffalo, NY, who are currently serving prison sentences for having trained at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. They, too, were hardly the criminal masterminds that they were initially made out to be. As The Washington Post put it in July 2003, “there was no evidence that the men had spoken of or planned an attack.” The Buffalo News said that same year, “They never built a bomb, never hijacked an airliner and, as far as the U.S. Justice Department can determine, never made any plans to commit terrorism.”

The Bush administration’s Justice Department has a vested interest in portraying every “plot” it busts as the next 9/11, regardless of how embryonic or feeble. It serves as a distraction from the administration’s failures in Iraq and elsewhere, it perpetuates the state of fear that has served this White House well in recent years, and it justifies the massive Homeland Security bureaucracy. Journalists, meanwhile, are at a decided disadvantage when trying to determine the seriousness — or lack thereof — of the threat, because the government holds all the cards. That’s why a healthy dose of skepticism — given this administration’s track record with truth — is crucial to the press’s handling of stories like Fort Dix. These would-be terrorists in New Jersey should be taken seriously, at least until we have reason to believe they shouldn’t. We’re only a couple of days into this story, but it’s never too early to watch for the hype, and watch for how the press either runs with it, or turns a skeptical eye.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.