Bush Flops as Press Critic

On Monday, President Bush once again unfairly accused a paper of publishing a bit of closely-held, super-secret information which, in retrospect, turned out to be neither closely-held nor super-secret.

On Monday, during a speech at George Washington University, President Bush spoke at length about the U.S. strategy to combat what the military refers to as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — aka roadside bombs — in Iraq. Along the way, Bush noted that the military’s anti-IED efforts were being hampered by two long-standing irritants to the administration: Iran and a U.S. newspaper.

“Earlier this year, a newspaper published details of a new anti-IED technology that was being developed,” said Bush. “Within five days of the publication — using details from that article — the enemy had posted instructions for defeating this new technology on the Internet. We cannot let the enemy know how we’re working to defeat him.”

So who was responsible for this supposedly reckless bit of reporting? Later in the day, administration officials reportedly said that the president was referring to an article that appeared last month in the Los Angeles Times.

Sure enough, the article in question, dated February 12 and written by Mark Mazzetti (since hired away by the New York Times), made several references to the so-called Joint IED Neutralizer, or JIN, a “remote-controlled device [that] blows up roadside bombs with a directed electrical charge.” However, the focus of Mazzetti’s story had little to do with how JIN might work, but rather with something very different — a bureaucratic dispute among the red tape artists of the Pentagon that was preventing the devices from being effectively deployed in Iraq.

Furthermore, there’s a good reason why the story in the Times didn’t focus primarily on the technology of JIN: Articles about anti-IED technology had already been circulating in the American media for months. JIN’s existence was an old story. Some six months earlier, for example, in August 2005, Fox’s “Your World With Neal Cavuto” featured an interview with Thomas Dearmin, President and CEO of Ionatron — the Arizona-based company that manufactures the Joint IED Neutralizer.

“This is a spinoff of our core technology which is laser-induced plasma channels …,” Dearmin told Fox. “What we’ve done is we’ve built a phaser but it fits in a truck right now. It’s not hand-held. We went to the government and they were looking for a quick solution to the roadside bomb problem … We actually drive them down the highway in front of a convoy or in an area where maybe the night before someone might have planted roadside bombs.”

Over the next few months, short pieces appeared in the Associated Press and the Arizona Daily Star, which also revealed that Ionatron was making a counter-IED device and, in a general sense, how the devices worked.

Perhaps the most in-depth story about the mechanics of Ionatron’s JIN technology appeared not in the Times in February 2006, but in the Journal of Electronic Defense, seven months ago, in August 2005.

“Developed by lonatron, Inc. (Tucson, AZ), the JIN is a directed energy-discharge system mounted on a remotely operated armored vehicle,” reported the Journal of Electronic Defense. “The system uses high-voltage electrical discharges from a remote-controlled boom to prematurely detonate IEDs.”

“The initial JIN prototype gave way to an improved version, dubbed JIN II …” the story added. “The JIN II has enhanced remote-control capabilities that enable it to be operated by a technician-level soldier using a radio-linked joystick, and it is more rugged, with increased armor that can withstand 155mm shells. … The major advantage of the use of this technology over the radio frequency (RF) technology currently being employed to combat IEDs … is that the JlN is a permanent solution.”

All of which would seem to put the lie to the president’s suggestion that the Times was somehow acting recklessly when it published Mazzetti’s story.

This is not the first time that the president has unfairly accused a paper of publishing a bit of closely-held, super-secret information which, in retrospect, turned out to be neither closely-held nor super-secret. As we have written in the past, President Bush did the same thing this past December when he accused the Washington Times, of all places, of inadvertently tipping off Osama bin Laden to U.S. surveillance of his cell phone.

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times came to its own defense, publishing a story that effectively dismissed the president’s accusation.

“The article did not provide specific information about the technology,” reported the Times, “and the Times deliberately withheld some details about the neutralizers from its report….The Times spoke to several Defense Department officials before the article appeared. None expressed concern that publication could endanger U.S. troops.”

Congratulations to the Times for pinpointing the spin cycle in action, and for fingering it for what it is.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.