February 3, 2010

Wire Watch: AP’s ‘Exclusive’ on Flight 253 Proves It Erred in Revising Original Reports

It would seem that the Associated Press wants to consider its January 25 story by Devlin Barrett (“Feds detail Christmas Day attack”; also saved here for future reference, fair use, and discussion purposes) the last word on what occurred in the hours immediately following Flight 253′s landing in Detroit on Christmas Day.

But if that’s indeed the case, Barrett’s report also serves to prove that the wire service had no business revising originally accurate reports to remove what were apparently inconvenient facts relating to the incident.

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To refresh by way of my Big Journalism post on January 15, AP’s initial reports on Christmas afternoon and early Christmas evening told readers that “the man claimed to have been instructed by al-Qaida to detonate the plane over U.S. soil,” and that it had even used the M-word (“Muslim”). But, I wrote, by the middle of the next morning, “The supposedly solid AQ connection somehow became tenuous and unproven,” and the M-word was gone.

This scrubbing conveniently gave the Obama administration precious time during the weekend that followed to regain its bearings after significant initial clumsiness. Ultimately, I noted that AP’s revisions “allowed the President of the United States to inform us (on the Tuesday after the attack), without challenge and as if it was a recent discovery, that — shazam! — the attack might have had something to do with AQ.”

Barrett’s report proves that there is no defense for what AP did, and that authorities knew all they needed to know within hours of Flight 253′s landing (bold is mine):

Here is what officials say happened:

Shortly after noon on Christmas, federal agents were notified that Northwest Airlines flight 253 had arrived at the Detroit airport from Amsterdam, with a passenger who had lit an explosive device on the aircraft.

After being restrained and stripped bare by fellow passengers and crew, Abdulmutallab was handed over to Customs and Border Protection officers and local police.

The officers and an ambulance crew took him to the burn unit at the University of Michigan Medical Center.

Along the way, Abdulmutallab repeatedly made incriminating statements to the CBP officers guarding him. He told them he had acted alone on the plane and had been trying to take down the aircraft.

Abdulmutallab arrived at the hospital just before 2 p.m. Still under guard, Abdulmutallab told a doctor treating him that he had tried to trigger the explosive. The Nigerian said it didn’t cause a blast, but instead began popping and ignited a fire on his groin and legs.

FBI agents from the Detroit bureau arrived at the hospital around 2:15 p.m., and were briefed by the Customs agents and officers as Abdulmutallab received medical treatment.

Shortly after 3:30 p.m., FBI agents began interviewing the suspect in his hospital room, joined by a CBP officer and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent.

The suspect spoke openly, said one official, talking in detail about what he’d done and the planning that went into the attack. Other counterterrorism officials speaking on condition of anonymity said it was during this questioning that he admitted he had been trained and instructed in the plot by al-Qaida operatives in Yemen.

Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, in a brief recording carried Sunday by the Al-Jazeera Arabic news channel, claimed responsibility and promised there would be more attacks on the U.S.

Barrett further reports that Abdulmutallab, after going into surgery and before being interviewed another time by a different team of investigators, “was told of his right to remain silent and right to have an attorney. He remained silent.”

The key takeaway from the bolded text in the excerpt above is that AP’s sources were correct when they originally reported within hours after Flight 253′s landing that the attack was Al Qaida-inspired. Nothing substantively changed in the hours and days that followed that should have caused anyone to water down that assessment in any way — yet the scrubbing I described above nevertheless took place.

Why? Was the wire service overcome by the political correctness bug, deciding that known facts relating to anyone who becomes involved with the U.S. justice system must be suppressed, regardless of their obviousness and demonstrated accuracy? Or even worse, did law enforcement officials or perhaps even Obama administration representatives lean on the AP to revise its original strongly-sourced findings? If it’s either group of people mentioned in the latter question, what were their motivations?

We’ll probably never know what caused the scrubbing, but Devlin Barrett’s report, which the AP would apparently like to see become the first draft of history, has proven beyond doubt that the outfit that likes to think of itself as “The Essential Global News Network” shouldn’t have done it.

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