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Outlook: Nine years after 9/11, let's stop playing into bin Laden's hands

Ted Koppel
Contributing Analyst, BBC World News America
Monday, September 13, 2010; 2:00 PM

Ted Koppel, managing editor of ABC News Nightline from 1980 - 2005 and contributing analyst for BBC World News America, was online Monday, Sept. 13, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article titled, "Nine years after 9/11, let's stop playing into bin Laden's hands."

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Silver Spring, MD: I recall seeing you on a late night talk show--can't remember which--in which you said that many of the security measures taken at airports were really window dressing ... removing shoes, pouring out liquids ... little more than a show to make it seem that the government was "doing something" when the preventative value of such measures was nil. Do you still have that opinion? Given that the danger of terrorism is still with us, what kind of actions do you think would actually make a difference?

Ted Koppel: I remember saying something roughly along those lines. The essential point (which I believe to this day) is that beyond protecting the flight crews behind locked/reinforced doors, the rest of the measures taken to secure passengers have been largely window dressing to make the flying public feel more secure. You have only to board a flight in many European cities, where shoes are not removed, liquids are not confiscated, to understand that it's been largely soothing, not necessarily practical.

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Washington DC: What do you think our nation would be like now had Al Gore been president on 9/11?

Ted Koppel: Would "President" Gore have invaded Iraq? I doubt it. Would the nation's environmental policies be the same as during the Bush administration? Almost certainly not.
But when it comes to most foreign policy issues, presidents tend to be driven by the same motive forces: the perceived national interests of the United States, as presented to them by their top intelligence, diplomatic and defense establishment advisers. In that sense, you see the Obama administration today persuing many of the same policies as their predecessors.

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Princeton NJ: In retrospect, do you have any regrets that you were so willing to be an "embedded corespondent for the invasion of Iraq? Do you feel the Broadcast News Media played a roll in allowing the Bush administration to take us down this destructive path without questioning the distortion of facts?

Mr. Koppel, I like you but be honest. You were caught up in the excitement of the moment.. true?

Ted Koppel: No question, that when you are an embedded reporter(and the term is new, the experience is not; I was effectively embedded over and over again in Viet Nam in 1967, 1969, 1970 and 1971) your sympathies certainly lie with the men and women on whose protection and support you depend.
I'm aware of the fact that there were reporters who chose to travel through Iraq without that protection and support. I admire them for their courage, not necessarily their judgment. In short, I see the traps that your question implies, but I believe that witnessing the invasion as an embedded reporter was still preferable to any alternative in which I was prepared to participate.

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Mont Alto, PA: In the passage below from your article, you seem to carefully suggest that the Bush administration's reaction grew out of their own convictions/beliefs. However, to my mind, the Bush administation saw not only a terrorist threat but a political opportunity. A cynic might even say that Bush & co. quickly recognized the value of having a frightened electorate.

Did you purposefully avoid bringing politics into your article because it would distract from your purpose?

Also, were you apprehensive about writing on this subject? (I ask that because where I live, suggesting that there was anything wrong with our response to 9/11 would likely be rewarded with a punch in the face.)

"The Bush administration convinced itself that the minds that conspired to turn passenger jets into ballistic missiles might discover the means to arm such "missiles" with chemical, biological or nuclear payloads."

Ted Koppel: I'd like to believe that your neighbors in Mont Alto are more tolerant than you suggest. In any event, I don't think the Bush administration invaded Iraq because they saw it as a political (in the domestic sense) opportunity. I do believe they saw it as a foreign policy opportunity. 9/11 provided the public support for an invasion of any country that was seen as connected to the attack. Iraq was not; but I believe there was a sense among certain of President Bush's advisers that an attack on Iraq, if successful,would serve as a warning to Iran, Syria, North Korea and a number of other potentially belligerent states. There is an old expression in the Middle East that "you kill the chicken to scare the monkey." It didn't work; indeed, I think the greatest result was a spreading tide of anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world, and, as I wrote in my op-ed, turning al-Qaeda into the fastest spreading franchise since McDonalds.

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Re: Terry Jones: Mr. Koppel-

I am confused as to why Rev. Jones has been allowed to speak his voice so loudly. How can the Obama administration sit by and politely ask this gentleman to please not burn copies of the Quran. His actions are clearly inciting riots abroad. Is that legal? He is blatantly going against the wishes of General Petraus. Is it okay to simply spit in the face of a general during wartime? I am appalled that he has been allowed to abuse our freedom of speech in such a perverted manner.

Ted Koppel: My wife, who is an attorney, assures me that the Rev. Jones has the legal right to burn copies of the Koran.
I tend to agree with you. If painting swastikas on a synagogue is a hate crime, if inciting people to violence is potential a crime, then I can only say that Mr. Jones is skating very, very close to the edge of criminal behavior.
I, however, am not a lawyer.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Koppel: Would you please draw on your experience, as an experienced journalist, and explain how (and why, if yes) the media played into the hands of terrorists?

Many thanks

Ted Koppel: Journalism has always been afflicted by the press of deadlines. Whereas fifty years ago,though, deadlines came only once or twice a day (when I started at abc news in 1963 we had one fifteen minutes newscast a day), these days, with 24-hour cable tv and the internet, there's a deadline every second. In short, there is often a greater emphasis on what's recent,rather than what is important; and the press of constant deadlines leaves a great deal less time for reflection.
Having said that, journalists shouldn't be concerned about"making policy." I'd be happy if we could just focus a little more on getting our facts straight and reporting with less of an ideological tilt; (host newspapers excepted, of course).

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Tampa, FL: Are the people stirring up hatred of Muslims acting on behalf of bin Laden as what Lenin called "useful idiots"?

Lenin wrote that capitalism would provide Communism with all the tools it needed because capitalist's "useful idiots" would sell whatever they could to make a profit. Here we have people who will give bin Laden all the help he needs because they will reap short-term political gain.

Further, in a recent Post chat, Prof. Esposito of Georgetown wrote that bin Laden would hate the Park Place mosque, would hate its backers and consider them traitors to Islam, and would kill them to stop the center. He can't stop it himself, but he has "useful idiots" here working on his behalf.

That's how I see it.

Ted Koppel: Certainly those who (in your words) "are stirring up hatred of Muslims" are useful to the ends of Osama bin Laden. He would like nothing better than to move the entire Muslim world into opposition with the Judeo-Christian world. Those who assume that all Muslims are sympathetic to the goals of al-Qaeda are not well informed, and are helping the very forces they seek to defeat.

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New York, N.Y.: Al Qaeda argues there is a war between Muslims and Christianity. Are responses in America against Muslims only allowing Al Qaeda to argue that they are correct? Wouldn't it be better if we led by example that we are a nation of religious tolerance?

Ted Koppel: Precisely the point I made with less brevity and elegance in response to a previous question. I agree.

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New York, N.Y.: In working with BBC, what are some of the differences, if any, you have noted on how most people in Britain view the war in Iraq versus how people in America view the war?

Ted Koppel: I actually work with BBC America here in Washington. I have no particular insights on how the British view the war in Iraq; except to note that the bodies of those British troops killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, are received, without exception, on their return to the UK with public ceremony and great dignity.
Our returning dead are certainly received with great dignity and impressive ceremony, but it happens without intruding in any fashion on the lives of most Americans.

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Austin, TX: Is the need to have an enemy and be all freaked out about it (al Qaeda, communism, whatever) a particularly American phenomenon, or is it just human nature?

(Not that al Qaeda and communism aren't/weren't real dangers, but we do seem to work ourselves into a state of hysteria every few years.)

Ted Koppel: It's not a particularly American phenomenon; but it happens most often in countries that are not democracies. Dictators routinely require the existence of a national enemy as a means of justifying their own (undemocratic) behavior.
I do not believe that the United States requires an enemy in the same fashion; but you're right, we do seem to have found a series of enemies that keep us engaged in firefighting around the world.

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Providence, RI: Do you think it was necessary that Saddam Hussein be executed?

Ted Koppel: I think it was appropriate to leave that up to the Iraqis; but I am not (if you're asking) a supporter of the death penalty.

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Austin, TX: Immediately after 9/11, there was, with some sad exceptions, surprisingly little hostility expressed toward American Muslims.

Now, nine years later, it's all coming out.

Why now and not (for the most part) then?

Ted Koppel: Our engagement in Afghanistan now is the longest running American combat operation in our history. Sometimes I think a certain public fatigue sets in. Also, there's been a growing anti-Americanism around the world which, in an of itself, produces anger and a desire to react in kind.

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Bethesda, MD: In retrospect, do you defend Nightline's (nightly) coverage of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, or do you think you were being excessive? Thank you.

Ted Koppel: To be accurate (and honest) Nightline didn't exist until after the brass at ABC saw the tremendous audience reaction to our nightly updates on the hostage situation; which, in those days, was called American Held Hostage.
It clearly began as a huge story that legitimately called for a nightly update. We kept it going on slow nights also, however, with stories on (for example) the difference between a Sunni and a Shi'ite, or the history of US involvement in Iran.
On balance, I think we did a good job and provided a useful service; but network news division require ratings (which provide advertising revenue) and the Iran story was of huge interest to our viewing audience.

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Ottawa, Ontario: Bin Laden has achieved a goal but not in the way Mr. Koppel thinks. What 9/11 achieved was to make too many people, especially politicians, afraid to condemn radical Islam and Sharia law. We have caved too many times since then to threats of violence from the Islamic world and have bowed, both literally in the case of Obama and the Saudi king, and figuratively in other ways, to Islam. That was bin Laden's goal, to instill fear of Islam into the hearts of westerners. The way to combat him and his ilk is to stand up, speak out and condemn the totalitarianism that permeates the so-called religion of peace.

Ted Koppel: I believe the mistake is to equate al-Qaeda and the goals of Osama bin Laden with Islam, in general. Bin Laden's goal is to draw the United States into confrontation and a sense of emnity with the entire Islamic world.
Our goal needs to be combating terrorism and bin Laden, without swelling the ranks of our enemies with people who should be our friends.

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Fairfax, Va./London, England: I live part time in London and I can tell you that each and every British war death is reported prominently. They have a strong sense of the cost of the wars projected in their media. Why do you think we don't have the same?

Ted Koppel: I made that very point in a reply to an earlier question.
I think both the Bush and Obama administrations are trying to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without truly engaging the American public. These are the first wars in American history for which additional taxes (a war tax) have not been raised. We are, effectively fighting both wars with money we have borrowed from China and Japan - i.e., treasury bills.
We don't raise the money honestly, we fight the wars with a volunteer force, abetted by private contractors. Everything is being done below the radar, so that it doesn't become a furious public debate. Focusing on the returning dead would not serve the purpose of keeping things low key.

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Los Angeles: Over the past few years there have been foreign intelligence reports that Bin Ladin died. Do you think that Bin Ladin is alive? Can the war in Afghanistan end without the capture/demise of the al Qaeda leadership?

Ted Koppel: While it would clearly be enormously satisfying to most of us if bin Laden were captured or killed, I don't think at this point it would make a great deal of difference. The momentum that has been developed over the past nine years has set into motion a degree of hostility in some quarters towards the United States, that will require years to undo.

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Alexandria, VA: Mr. Koppel,

One of the things I notice of late is the seeming lack of comeuppance when politicians/candidates completely falsify something (Governor Brewer and the headless bodies not withstanding). As a journalist, is it your job only to report on what a politician says, or is there a certain requirement to verify the accuracy of their statement before reporting it?

It just seems that given the polarization at the moment, an increased amount of journalistic fact-checking could only help the situation.

Thank you

Ted Koppel: I couldn't agree more. As I said in answer to an earlier query, the imperative of the 24/7 news cycle create tremendous pressure to respond immediately. One of the merits of the establishment (mainstream) media continues to be that it operates under an old set of standards, with editors/producers/management that require accuracy, and punish its absence by firing careless reporters.

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Anonymous: "Our goal needs to be combating terrorism and bin Laden, without swelling the ranks of our enemies with people who should be our friends"

Why should they be our friends? What does the US do for them other then us taxpayer funds to prop up dictatorships within their own nations and sell them weapons to use on their own citizens. This impedes representitive democracy. The citizens of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq have no reason to be friends with the US

Ted Koppel: Your basic point in correct; in that the United States, for larger foreign policy interests, has supported a lot of dictators around the world. But(a) Washington has also used its influence to moderate human rights violations where it can and (b) an astonishing number of citizens of the very countries you cite, still have great affection for the United States....but also feel that we have betrayed some of our own most fundamental values these last nine years.

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Worthington, OH: Wonderful analysis. Why didn't you provide this 9 years ago? Perhaps a reasoned voice, and there weren't many, would have slowed down the insane race to Iraq. Why didn't you speak up then?

Ted Koppel: Actually, we put on a 90-minute town meeting just before the invasion of Iraq titled "Why Now?"
Having said that, one of the jokes circulating in Washington prior to the invasion was: "We know that Saddam has weapons of mass destruction. We still have the receipts."
There was some bitter truth to that. We and the Germans, French and British, had sold Saddam the wherewithall to make weapons of mass destruction.
When I crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq with the "point of the spear" as the Third Division was called, I was wearing my bio-chem suit, I had my gas mask on my hip,and I practised putting it on in the 9 seconds the army said we had after a warning.
It made sense to many of us that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. He had used poison gas against Iraqi Kurds in Halabja, and there was no reason to believe that he didn't have existing supplies.

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Pittsburgh: Do you think we'll ever have another Edward R. Murrow who will have the fortitude and clout to call out today's right-wing extremists the way Murrow did Joe McCarthy and his ilk on TV? If so, who do you think it might be?

Ted Koppel: I'm sure there are many journalists today who would have the courage; but the media landscape is so drastically different from what it was nearly sixty years ago, that no one will have the impact of a Murrow again.

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Washington DC: Mr. Koppel, I follow the conversation in online chats like this one and I read the reader comments on online newspapers, and I am convinced that Americans are increasingly unable to differentiate between news articles and editorials, between fact and opinion. This inability, in my opinion, is a major contributor to the arguments and complaints of a "biased media" and culture of mistrust. I wonder if your experience of news audiences has been similar?

Ted Koppel: Indeed. I fear that too many of my colleagues in the media have fallen into the trap of believing that they must appeal to one end of the political spectrum or another.
There's certainly room for opinion (which, after all, I'm expressing here) in the media world. I just wish that the public appetite for objectivity would encourage more news organizations to provide coverage that is unaffiliated with either wing of the spectrum.

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Cleveland OH: If we needed to be able to stay on top of Pakistan, but can't have troops there, how could we do this without being in Afghanistan?

Ted Koppel: Expeditionary forces aboard aircraft and helicopter carriers.

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Butte, MT: In your article you manage to not only blame the anger, hate, and resentment that has built up in the Muslim world on Americans, but the anger, hate, and resentment that has built up in this country towards Muslims on Americans as well.

Do you not think that freedom of speech in this country is threatened when we are afraid to publish books and release cartoons, or are shamed out of making a political statement?

I find burning a Quran just as offensive as say, building a Mosque where Muslims killed thousands of Americans, without regard to those who lost loved ones.

Why are you not defending the pastors right to burn a book when we can burn a flag that means just as much to someone? Do you not see that you are creating the resentment in this country towards Muslims by giving them special treatment? By trying to placate Muslim anger and aggression, you infuriate thousands who had to put up with offenses hurled at them under the banner of freedom of speech. Where were you when someone tore down their cross, or burned their flag? Do you not feel the media's selective stance on constitutional rights had a hand in all of this?

Ted Koppel: Let's make this the last answer; because your question is one that I think reflects the views of a great many of our fellow citizens.
As I said earlier on, I was corrected by my attorney/wife, who assures me that the pastor in Florida has every right to burn the Koran. I accept his right to do so. I also accept the right of the folks in lower Manhattan to build their Muslim center a couple of blocks from ground Zero. That's what we do. That's who we are. We don't need to defend the rights of the popular to say things with which most of us agree. What makes America great is its guarantee to the least popular among us that they are protected by the same laws as everyone else.
You write of Muslims who killed thousands of Americans (on 9/11). You do not mention that there were many Muslims among those Americans who were killed. And, even more important, you seem to equate all Muslims with those who committed this terrible act. We don't do that: focus on a crime, establish the race and/or religion of the criminal and then transfer the blame to all others in those categories. That's what makes America special....in Butte and back here in Maryland. Thank you and thanks to all of you who joined in this dialogue. Ted Koppel

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