Hit or Miss

60 Minutes does John Brennan’s job for him

February 17, 2016

Fear is flammable, and on this week’s episode of 60 Minutes, host Scott Pelley seemed determined to kindle it.

Pelley interviewed CIA Director John Brennan at CIA headquarters last Sunday about the security threats facing the United States in 2016, and the threat of ISIS in particular. Pelley opens the show with the claim that ISIS has, “the manpower, the means, and the ruthlessness to attack the US,” Dun dun dun. 

Then Pelley sets out to prove his point with a series of leading questions, starting with his first, and punctuated throughout the 13-minute segment:

“Is ISIS coming here?”

“So you’re expecting an attack in the United States?”

“Does ISIS have chemical weapons?”

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“Do they have the capabilities to bring them to the West?”

“What do you think our policy would be after an ISIS-directed attack in the United States?”

As if that’s a foregone conclusion.

Pelley is committing a double disservice here. Not only is he not providing context around the complex quandary of how the US should deal with ISIS, his questions inflate existing fears, implying that the ISIS threat in the US is imminent and inevitable.

The consequences of this kind of societal terror are obvious. Over the last year, we’ve seen how quickly fear–legitimate or otherwise–becomes hate. And history shows that the more threatened Americans feel, the more willing they are to forgo certain civil liberties in exchange for the promise of protecting the nation.

Look, for example, to the encryption debate currently broiling in the country. The intelligence community has been vigorously fighting for anti-encryption measures, while most members of the technology sector agree that doing so would only serve to make the country less safe. After the November Paris attacks, Brennan in part blamed the Snowden leaks and the “technological capabilities” of terrorist groups (a euphemism for encrypted communications) for the failure to stop the attacks. “I hope this will be a wake-up call,” he said at the global security forum.

Pelley’s interview came several days after James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, updated the Senate Armed Services Committee on the range of threats facing the nation, a report otherwise known as the Worldwide Threat Assessment. Clapper referred to his opening statement as a “litany of doom.” ISIS and the threat posed by encryption to cybersecurity both made the list, along with North Korea, Al Qaeda, and the migrant crisis in Europe.

Few journalists pushed back. Most simply reported the key points made at the hearing. “Journalists are just parroting a lot of the government’s claims,” says Jenna McLaughlin, a national security reporter at The Intercept. The threats facing the country, she says, from ISIS in particular, are “definitely dangerous, but definitely overplayed.” 

The act of overplaying comes with its own brand of danger. Pelley’s questioning, sadly, is a perfect example. Marcy Wheeler, a national security blogger and frequent columnist, leveled three critiques at the Pelley-Brennan exchange. First, she argued, throughout the segment the duo conflate ISIS-inspired and ISIS-directed attacks. 

Pelley: “Is ISIS coming here?”

Brennan: “I think ISIL does want to eventually find its … its mark here.”

When Pelley questions him further on whether he expects an attack on US soil, Brennan’s answers, “I believe their attempts are inevitable.” But what does that actually mean? It’s a statement couched in unclear language ISIS will attempt an attack on American soil at the scale of 9/11, or is he suggesting the terrorist state will provide resources to radicalized Americans? While both scenarios may be legitimate threats, it’s important to distinguish between them, since they imply different consequences and require different means of counterattack.

Wheeler also called out Pelley’s blanket acceptance of Brennan’s contentious line about the role of encryption in the Paris attacks. She also makes note of how Pelley inflates the issue of ISIS having access to chemical weapons.

That ISIS has access to chemical weapons is not controversial. It was addressed in the threat assessment brief, and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed that ISIS has used mustard gas in at least one instance, likely an August 2015 attack in Marea, Syria, which killed an infant. And according to Alastair Hay, a chemical weapons expert and professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds, there is some indication that ISIS may be creating some of its own material, although that hasn’t been confirmed.

ISIS getting its hands on chemical weapons is an understandably alarming thought, but the menace implied by the term is often far greater than the menace of the weapon itself, says New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers. “Just saying ‘chemical weapons’ is like saying, BOO!” he says. “It’s the journalist’s job to step back and provide context.”

A long-time war correspondent and arms expert, Chivers has written several stories on chemical weapons in Syria, including a feature story on the family of Sidra, the infant killed last August in Marea. Chivers says that when he writes on the issue, he insists on including language contextualizing the threat fairly high up on his pieces. Doing so is a service to readers, who want to be informed, not agitated.

Instead of doing that job and explaining to viewers that chemical weapons vary–and that some, like chlorine, have been used in Iraq since 2004, in IEDs and the like, and that these attacks are often non-lethal and inefficient–Pelley forges ahead. He leaves viewers with an unexamined statement from the CIA that says ISIS can now make small amounts of chlorine and mustard gas. None of the context, all the fear.

Now several years into the surveillance debate, during which time the intelligence community has consistently put national security interests before civil liberties, sometimes at the expense of the latter, journalists should be cautious about taking the CIA’s word.

Pelley, and 60 Minutes, not only lost an opportunity to force some truth, they threw a match into the tinderbox that is America today.

Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa