Cage Match: New York Times vs. Fox News

The Associated Press reports on an epic conflict from the world of journalism: “No apology from Fox in its battle with The New York Times.” The AP sees the conflict from the Times’s point of view:

Fox News Channel on Monday clarified, but didn’t apologize for, a weekend segment that The New York Times said falsely accused the newspaper of revealing intelligence information that enabled Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to elude capture by U.S. forces two years ago.

Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha said Fox was guilty of “sheer hypocrisy” because the network had also reported about a U.S. raid that netted valuable intelligence soon after it took place.

The drama begins with this article, published by the Times on May 8, 2015. Relying in part on anonymous sources, it described a special forces raid the preceding month that killed a key ISIS leader, Abu Sayyaf, and captured his wife along with much electronic material.

Two years later, Fox News reported that the 2015 Times article “allowed ISIS leader [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] to slip away.” Fox’s report was based on an interview with General Tony Thomas, the commander of United States Special Operations Command. General Thomas said:

It was a very good lead. Unfortunately, it was leaked in a prominent national newspaper about a week later, and that lead went dead.

Fox’s on-air personalities blasted the Times; Pete Hegseth referred repeatedly to the “failing New York Times” as the source of the leak. President Trump apparently was watching, because shortly afterward he tweeted:

The Failing New York Times foiled U.S. attempt to kill the single most wanted terrorist, Al-Baghdadi. Their sick agenda over National Security

The Times took umbrage, and demanded an apology from Fox. The Times pled its defense in the alternative, pointing out that its article was published three weeks, not one week, after the raid that killed Abu Sayyaf. But it didn’t seriously claim that General Thomas was talking about an article in some other newspaper.

The Times’s fundamental problem is that it is complaining to the wrong party. General Thomas said exactly what Fox reported. If Thomas was wrong, the paper should take its case to him, not to Fox News.

The paper’s spokeswoman also accused Fox of “sheer hypocrisy”:

“The host railed against The New York Times for covering a raid stating that the U.S. government ‘would have had al-Baghdadi based on the intelligence that we had except someone leaked’ to The New York Times when Fox News had covered the same raid three weeks earlier in a segment in which their correspondent said, ‘The newly recovered intelligence may bring U.S. closer to Baghdadi’s kill or capture.’”

“According to the curious logic of the Fox & Friends host, Fox News itself was unpatriotic,” she added.

This is a silly argument. The fact that U.S. special forces conducted a raid was no secret. al-Baghdadi obviously knew that one of his chief lieutenants was dead, his wife was captured and various electronic files had been confiscated. The real question is whether the Times’s account published on June 8, 2015 included leaked details that would have been valuable to al-Baghdadi. I think this is the relevant part of the article:

New insights yielded by the seized trove — four to seven terabytes of data, according to one official — include how the organization’s shadowy leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, operates and tries to avoid being tracked by coalition forces.

Mr. Baghdadi meets periodically with regional emirs, or leaders, at his headquarters in Raqqa in eastern Syria. To ensure his safety, specially entrusted drivers pick up each of the emirs and demand that they hand over their cellphones and any other electronic devices to avoid inadvertently disclosing their location through tracking by American intelligence, the officials said.

Wives of the top Islamic State leaders, including Mr. Baghdadi’s, play a more important role than previously known, passing information to one another, and then to their spouses, in an effort to avoid electronic intercepts.

Note that these paragraphs are not attributed to any named source, which means that they were leaked. I think the key point is probably the last paragraph. Electronic files seized in the Abu Sayyaf raid told us something we hadn’t known before: ISIS leaders concealed their communications from NSA surveillance by delegating them to their wives–of whom each terrorist probably has several.

The wives’ names and telephone numbers may not have been previously known to American intelligence, but the files captured in the Abu Sayyaf raid allowed us to eavesdrop on their communications. Once al-Baghdadi realized through the Times report that this ploy had been discovered, he shifted to another means of communication, thereby avoiding incineration.

Is this hypothesis correct? I don’t know. But General Thomas, the head of all U.S. special forces, believes that the Times article contained information that allowed al-Baghdadi to escape. I have no reason to believe that he is wrong. If the Times has good reason to think he is mistaken, they should take the issue up with General Thomas, not with Fox News.

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