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The Windbags of War

July 21, 2002|ANA MARIE COX | Ana Marie Cox is the Washington columnist for In These Times.

WASHINGTON — War produces celebrity journalists, writers whose words or deeds make them household names and occasionally provides the launching pad for illustrious careers. World War I gave us Walter Lippmann. World War II gave us Ernie Pyle. Vietnam, David Halberstam. The war on terror has given us ... Ann Coulter.

Coulter was not unknown before Sept. 11. In 1996, she springboarded from her job as then-Sen. Spencer Abraham's deputy press secretary to full-blown ''constitutional scholar" and professional Clinton hater. She then successfully parlayed a job as part-time MSNBC-TV commentator into a regular slot on the now-canceled ''Politically Incorrect," largely because of her willingness to go for sound-bite overkill. She brought new vigor to her career when she called for the wholesale conversion to Christianity of Muslims in the Arab world. Her new best-selling book, ''Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right," was in preparation before Sept. 11, and she hastily amended it to include sections on how liberals actually hate America more than Muslims and how they have deviously maneuvered to undermine the war on terrorism. ''In lieu of a military response against terrorists," she writes, "liberals wanted to get the whole thing over with and just throw conservatives in jail."

Coulter is one of many faces that have come to dominate the post- 9/11 datasphere, but whose expertise on terrorism is, to be charitable, dubious. For the most part, these faces serve to cheer on the Bush administration in whatever counterterrorism plans or arrests it may announce and offer chilling predictions about what might happen should we let down our guard. Some of these ''experts" play an eager role in drumming up support for the Bush team's not-so-secret dream of invading Iraq and in maintaining the healthy glow of a presidency that cannot afford to let us forget we're at war. This tacit complicity between policymakers and media is not benign: It contributes to an atmosphere of hysteria that undercuts our good judgment and weakens our loyalty to civil rights.

Before 9/11, one might have wondered why the Family Research Council, whose primary policy positions revolve around getting prayer into schools and keeping homosexuals out, had a ''military and national affairs" specialist. Indeed, retired Army Lt. Col. Robert L. Maginnis spent most of his time arguing against the decriminalization of marijuana, which hasn't been a national security issue since audiences realized that ''Reefer Madness" was a comedy, not a documentary. But lately, Maginnis has been called upon by news networks to offer expert opinion on everything from the civil rights of John Walker Lindh (he doesn't deserve them) to the limited torture of terrorist suspects (not a problem).

One would not expect the New York Times to stand next to the Family Research Council on any sort of political spectrum, but in ranking the alarmists, Times reporter Judith Miller is not that far away from Maginnis. While superficially apolitical in her comments on the news networks and in her reporting, it's difficult not to pick up the hint of hysteria that garlands stories in which, for instance, the destruction of the Al Qaeda network in Afghanistan is touted as having actually ''complicated counterterrorism efforts."

Is this tone intentional? Who knows. Will Miller's forthcoming book on terrorism benefit from such stoking of fears? Of course it will.

At least Maginnis and Miller are experienced talking heads. Others have sprung fully formed into media stardom. One example is Stephen Gale, a University of Pennsylvania professor. His opinion on national security has been sought by the likes of NBC, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Washington Post and the U.S. Senate. He has been uniformly pessimistic in his evaluation of our chances of winning the war on terror (he gives Al Qaeda a ''50-50 chance" of decimating the U.S.) and claims a certain prophet-in-the-wilderness authority on the subject.

A favorite talking point: The story of how he approached the Federal Aviation Administration in 1998 with the likely scenario of terrorists using planes as bombs but got turned away by agency bureaucrats. Rebecca Trexler, a spokesperson for the FAA who handled security issues for the agency at the time, says that the first she heard of Gale's visit was when she read about it in the New York Times.

''I called him and asked him who he had spoken to about this, and the person he named has been dead for a few years," Trexler says. ''The people in that person's office don't remember that meeting, and there's no record of it, so there's no way knowing what was said."

Trying to turn up evidence of Gale's terrorism expertise before the Sept. 11 attacks is largely fruitless. He developed software that calculates the ''value added" by corporate security measures and co-wrote a paper on terrorism that is now nearly 10 years old.

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