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Bug #30282 closed:unresolved

MediaBugs authors compound the John Lindh "al Qaeda" myth

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This bug appeared in a news report published by The Atlantic on Jul 20, 2011 by Scott Rosenberg & Mark Follman. View the original news report.
Bug Type:  Fabrication

In their "Corrections in theWeb Age" article in The Atlantic about false reports that John Walker Lindh (my son) is a "terrorist" or contributed his services to a "terrorist organization," the authors actually compounded the problem they were describing by saying falsely that John received training at an "Al Qaeda-funded camp" in Afghanistan.

Supporting Information:

The camp where John Lindh received his basic military training wad not an "al Qaeda" or a terrorist training camp. As the NY Times reported in a major story published on March 18, 2002, "This training -- seen in notebooks from Mazar-I-Sharif and Al Farouk, where the Talib from California, John Walker Lindh, trained -- was geared for combat rather than terrorism, said American instructors who reviewed it." See NY Times article at link below: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/18/world/turning-out-guerrillas-and-terrorists-to-wage-a-holy-war.html?scp=1&sq=%22turning%20out%20guerrillas%20and%20terrorists%20to%20wage%20a%20holy%20war%22&st=cse

Response

Bug History

Jul 25, 2011 9:40 am Open Anonymous
Jul 27, 2011 9:20 am Open: Under Discussion Scott Rosenberg
Jul 27, 2011 9:20 am Open: Responded To Scott Rosenberg
Oct 03, 2011 9:02 am Closed: Unresolved admin

Discussion Leave a comment

Thanks for filing this report. It's great to have the chance to show the MediaBugs process at work on MediaBugs' own work.

I want to respond by looking closely at the issue you raise. If the phrase in question -- our reference to the camp that John Walker Lindh trained at in Afghanistan as being "Al Qaeda-funded" -- is inaccurate, then we should correct it.

From the reading I've done, it seems there's no disputing the fact that Osama bin Laden funded this camp. I think you confirmed that yourself in your recent Guardian piece: "The training camp in Afghanistan where the Ansar [a name for the part of the Taliban army John Walker Lindh enlisted in] received their infantry training was funded by Osama bin Laden, who also visited the camp on a regular basis."

So I guess the issue here is whether or not our phrase "Al Qaeda-funded" means the same thing as "Osama bin Laden-funded." This was my assumption in writing those words. What we're going to do now is try to consult with some experts to get more clarity on this.

Frank, if you have any information to shed light on this it would be welcome. I understand the point your supporting information for this bug report makes -- that the camp itself was all about military training and not terrorist training -- but I don't think our article ever said the camp was a terrorist camp or that John received terrorist training. Our reference was to the camp's source of funding.

Side note: Obviously we're in a complex position at MediaBugs since we're the administrators of this service and we're also the author of the article in question. We'll do our best here to separate our roles and try to be extra careful about how we handle it. The way MediaBugs works, the person who filed the bug report -- in this case, Frank Lindh -- is the party who gets to decide the final status of the report (corrected, withdrawn, unresolved, etc.).

Jul 27, 2011 9:20 am
 

I appreciate Scott's thoughful response. But I am still upset with this unwarranted and harmful "al Qaeda" reference.

To begin with, as I think Scott agrees, there is an important distinction between an "al Qaeda camp" and a Taliban military camp. My son John received infrantry training in a Taliban military camp. This is verified in the New York Times article I appended, based on information provided by U.S. military sources. It is very clear, therefore, that this was not an al Qaeda camp.

To say, as your article did, that the camp was "Al Qaeda-funded" inevitably will perpetuate in the minds of your readers the (false) impression that this was an al Qaeda camp.

It is true, of course, that Osama bin Laden provided funds to the Taliban government that were used to run this military training camp. But this activity by bin Laden was done quite openly, not secretively.

In contrast, bin Laden's terrorism training and planning occurred in deep secrecy, at clandestine locations elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Perhaps I am a bit defensive on this point, but please recall that my son -- a completely innocent and idealistic young man who went to Afghanistan to help defend civilians from brutal attacks by Russian-backed warlords -- was publicly and repeatedly accused by President Bush, Attorney General Ashcroft, and numerous other officials, as well as the mainstream media in the U.S., of being an "al Qaeda" fighter, a terrorist, and a traitor. No other criminal defendant in our nation's history has ever withstood such false, outrageous and prejudicial commentary by powerful officials and the mainstream media.

I am not aware of any other publication that has said the camp John attended was "al Qaeda-funded" until your article, even though it has been widely reported that the training camp received funds from Osama bin Laden.

So, I think this statement, in your otherwise commendable article, constitutes a damaging error. It will help perpetuate the myth that my son was connected to al Qaeda and terrorism.

It is ironic (and painful for me) that this damaging misstatment occured in the context of an article about trying to CORRECT this same kind of misinformation about John.

Thank you for considering my suggested correction.

Frank Lindh
San Rafael, CA

Jul 28, 2011 9:11 pm

Thanks for the response, Frank.

From where I sit, as the primary writer of this piece, I don't see how, in the context of our 3000+ word article that took great pains to establish the distinction between the "John Walker Lindh as Taliban soldier" and "John Walker Lindh as al Qaeda terrorist" versions of the story, our description of the camp as "al Qaeda funded" would, on its own, erase that distinction for a reader.

What matters to me is, more basically, is "al Qaeda funded" accurate? If it's not, I feel we should correct the piece. If it is, then I must disagree with you about the need for a correction.

I realize this may not satisfy you. And I'm happy to keep discussing the broader question, but I'm determined to figure out what's right here on the specific factual point, first. So we're reaching out to several writers who have covered the pre-9/11 Taliban and trying to get some clarity on the financing side of this. I'll report back here as we get more info.

Jul 29, 2011 9:45 am

We emailed a couple of Al Qaeda experts about the funding issue. Here's what they had to say:

Lawrence Wright:
"There's no real difference between 'al-Qaeda-funded' and 'bin-Laden-funded.' Most of AQ's money in the early days came out of OBL's pocket. He ran out of money after he was expelled from Sudan in 1996 and started relying entirely on donors, mostly from the Gulf."

Bruce Hoffman:
"As much as I think there were serious misrepresentations made in Walker's case and how he was portrayed, on this issue at least I don't see any difference."

Aug 02, 2011 10:11 am

So that provides a decent amount of support for my sense that there isn't a correctable error here. I do think our story was quite careful to make clear that John Walker Lindh's training and service was as a Taliban soldier and not an "al Qaeda terrorist." Conversely, to those readers who have already convicted him in their minds, substituting "bin Laden-funded" for "al Qaeda-funded" would not, I'd argue, make much difference.

So while I'm willing to try to keep an open mind on this to further arguments or evidence, right now I really don't see that a correction would be in order.

Aug 03, 2011 12:53 pm