The New York Times has attached a three-paragraph editor’s note to a front-page Sunday story on the abilities of the U.S. government to surveil the online communications of the San Bernardino, Calif., assailants, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. The original story, under the headline “Visa Screening Missed an Attacker’s Zealotry on Social Media,” alleged that Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.”
A jittery country paid attention. Numerous follow-ups repeated the allegations, and candidates at Tuesday night’s CNN Republican presidential debate hatcheted the government for having failed to find evidence on wide-open Web platforms.
Then, FBI Director James Comey, in a Wednesday appearance in New York City, corrected the record. He said there was “no evidence of posting on social media by either of them at that period in time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom,” referring to the period prior to Malik’s July 2014 entry into the United States on a K-1 fiancee visa.
Now the headline on the New York Times story reads, “U.S. Visa Process Missed San Bernardino Wife’s Online Zealotry.” And here’s the text of the editor’s note:
Editors’ Note: December 17, 2015
The original version of this article, based on accounts from law enforcement officials, reported that Tashfeen Malik had “talked openly on social media” about her support for violent jihad.
On Wednesday, however, the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, said that online communications about jihad by Ms. Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, involved “direct, private messages.” His remarks indicated that the comments about jihad were not made in widely accessible social media posts.
Law enforcement officials subsequently told The Times that Ms. Malik communicated with her husband in emails and private messages, and on a dating site. Ms. Malik’s comments to Mr. Farook about violent jihad were made on a messaging platform, officials said. Neither Mr. Comey nor other officials identified the specific platforms that were used. (This article and headline have been revised to reflect the new information.)
Revisions, indeed, crowd the story. None is more consequential than the lede, which formerly read like this:
Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband carried out the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., passed three background checks by American immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan. None uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad. She said she supported it. And she said she wanted to be a part of it.
Compare with the revised version:
Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband carried out the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., passed three background checks by American immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan. None uncovered what Ms. Malik had said online about her views on violent jihad. She said she supported it. And she said she wanted to be a part of it.
There’s a problem here, and it relates to chicken wire. The New York Times is attempting to preserve the structure and feel of a story about federal government misfeasance in a world where there appears to be little or no misfeasance. Consider the new-look lede: It appears to fault immigration officials for failing to uncover Malik’s online views on jihad. Well of course they failed in that pursuit: Those views were expressed in private — and quite possibly encrypted — communications. There should be no expectation that they would be uncovered by immigration officials.
The same flaw mars the new headline: “U.S. Visa Process Missed San Bernardino Wife’s Online Zealotry.” Of course it did.
The story attempts to account for the gap: “Despite a tremendous electronic intelligence-gathering apparatus that captures phone calls and emails from around the world, it remains impossible to conduct an exhaustive investigation for each of the tens of millions of people who are cleared each year to come to this country to work, visit or live.”
These are tough and important stories to report, for sure. And the current iteration of the story appears to add an important wrinkle to the state of knowledge on all of this business. An “online messaging platform” as well as a “dating site” carried private exchanges regarding jihad between Malik and Farook, but “not on traditional social media sites such as Facebook.” The Los Angeles Times reported that Malik sent private messages on Facebook.
Yet this is an attempt to retrofit a factually poisoned article with replacement parts that don’t fit. The New York Times gets accused of bias all the time, most commonly of the ideological variety. The bias apparent in this episode veers toward enlarging government breakdowns. Or, in this case, alleged government breakdowns.