Thursday, April 22, 2004

WHAT THE POST DIDN'T TELL YOU. Here's an intriguing tidbit from Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack. In December 2001, the CIA - following up on information from Britain's MI6 - learned of Pakistan's role in nuclear proliferation. CIA director George Tenet reportedly had a meeting with Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, in which he "peel[ed] back the eyeballs" of his host.

Among other things, the CIA feared that nuclear technology had fallen into the hands of Al Qaeda.

The Washington Post learned of this as well. Woodward explains why you didn't read about it:

Two reporters at The Washington Post had got wind of the possible nuclear or dirty bomb threat and a story was about to be published on Sunday, December 2, with some of the details. With Tenet out of the country, a very senior CIA official called me at home hours before the story was to be printed and urged it be delayed.

Of Musharraf, the official said, "We leaned on him heavily" and were "turning the screws." The official said, "We just reached the point where they [the Pakistanis] will work with us. A story would cause them to clam up and they would see it as an attempt to pressure them" through the media. The information was sketchy, he said. "What we have is more suggestive than conclusive."

Len Downie, the executive editor of the Post, spoke with the CIA official and decided to hold the story.

Two days later, Woodward writes, the Post ran a watered-down version.

This is reminiscent of the New York Times' decision in 1961, at another time of high national anxiety, to tone down its story about the pending Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba after the White House intervened with legendary Washington columnist and editor James Reston. The Times and the Bay of Pigs is as much myth as fact - the truth is that the Times didn't really change its story all that much - but the the circumstances are similar.

I think the Post made the right call on the loose-nuke story, especially coming less than three months after 9/11. Still, it's interesting to find out what goes on behind closed doors at our leading news organizations.

DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT TECHNOLOGY. The New York Times is at it again. Just three days after publishing a story about the online-music industry that was largely based on a false premise, today the paper runs an editorial blasting the indecency crusade (good), with reasoning based on yet another false premise (bad, bad!).

Noting that Congress is now considering whether to extend indecency standards to pay-TV services such as HBO, home of The Sopranos, the Times writes: "Washington's pro-decency crusade is no excuse to regulate media that do not use public airwaves. Tony Soprano's foul speech is constitutionally protected."

My goodness gracious, no, as Donald Rumsfeld would say, and as Tony Soprano might soon be saying as well. As I explained recently, it might very well be possible to extend indecency standards to cable - including pay TV - because, in fact, those services do use the public airwaves. Remember, cable used to be called "community antenna television," and though the name has changed, the technology hasn't. Your local cable operator has a huge "head end" antenna somewhere in the vicinity that pulls programming off a satellite before sending it to your home. The signal travels from satellite to head-end antenna via - are you paying attention, Gail Collins? - the public airwaves!

Because of this, there are those who believe the FCC doesn't even need additional congressional approval to start regulating cable.

The best legal argument for leaving pay TV alone is that, unlike over-the-air broadcast channels that come into your home whether you want them or not, you've got to make two voluntary choices to get, say, HBO: first, you've got to sign up for cable or satellite TV; then you've got to make the additional decision to pay for HBO.

The Times' heart is in the right place, but it's not going to convince anyone if it can't make a technologically factual argument.

NEW IN THIS WEEK'S PHOENIX. What's wrong with campaign-finance reform. Also, the ghost of Thomas Jefferson has words with the Defense Department and the Secret Service.

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