By GARY BAUMGARTEN
Paltalk News Network
I remember when I was a radio reporter in Detroit, that during a visit to Detroit Metropolitan Airport I noticed an obvious vulnerability in security.
When I spotted it - I became immediately conflicted. As a reporter, I thought - hey - this is a pretty good "gotcha" story. As a citizen though - I wondered if reporting the vulnerability was such a good idea. What if someone who might want to do harm to the flying public heard my story and then - before the authorities could do anything to correct what I had revealed - took advantage of the potential security breech? Would the great story outweigh the potential loss in life it had caused?
Reporters are supposed to seek the truth - but we're supposed to do it in a way that causes no harm. That's easier said than done. Lots of stories cause harm to others. Sometimes it means someone loses their job, for example. Usually a reporter will weigh the effect on the individual versus the public good when deciding whether to file a story. If a meat inspector - for example - is taking bribes and passing tainted product for consumption - no reporter would worry about the harm his or her story would bring to the inspector. The story would be published or aired because of the number of people who could possibly become ill because of the inspector's actions. Yes, the inspector might consequently be fired - but that possibility is far outweighed by the concerns over public health.
But the case of the security vulnerability at the airport wasn't as clear cut in my mind. I decided to let the county sheriff - whose deputies then patrolled Metro Airport - know what I had observed. I figured - if he corrected the problem - I could report about it then - after the fact. But if he failed to fix it I would dutifully report it. I'm happy to say that when I went back to the airport the very next day the upgrades in security had already been implemented. I still had my story, and my conscience was clear.
Since the terrorist attacks in 2001, Congress and the news media have been working in overdrive to publicly report security weaknesses that could be exploited by terrorists. The intent is almost always a good one - to get these vulnerabilities addressed and avert another tragedy. But I'm wondering if it's all setting us up for potentially deadly unintended consequences.
This morning CNN aired a report about congressional concerns about how easy it would be for terrorists to attack a _____. I have purposely left the potential target blank because - it really doesn't matter. And why draw further unwanted attention to the risk? You can fill it in with anything that pops into your mind and I guess you'd probably be right. There are plenty of so-called soft-targets around.
What concerns me is that in our attempt to do our jobs by investigating and accurately reporting homeland security concerns - we may be inadvertently aiding and abetting enemies of the United States.
Two recent stories highlight this concern.
The TSA's airport screener's training manual was inadvertently posted on a public government Web site. It was quickly taken down when the mistake was discovered. But not before others captured the information and posted it on their sites, potentially creating new airport security vulnerabilities.
Then there's the case of the five wanna-be American jihadists who allegedly tried to connect with al Qaeda on Facebook and traveled to Pakistan in search of terrorist training. These five represent a mind-set that concerns me whenever security vulnerability stories are published or aired.
The September 11, 2001 attacks were well coordinated, well thought out and took years to plan and implement. They put al Qaeda on the map and resulted in intense efforts by the military, the intelligence community and law enforcement to thwart their future efforts. If you know your enemy - the chances of preventing another terrorist attack improves. Because you can develop contacts, infiltrate and initiate police investigations designed to stop them in their tracks. Scores of cases have been successfully prosecuted in federal court in the eight years since September 11 this way. More importantly - the arrests meant the planned attacks were prevented.
But when impressionable people - like the five Americans who went to Pakistan - take action into their own hands - the task of identifying them and stopping them becomes far more difficult.
Too many well intentioned, detailed, congressional investigations and dutifully reported stories about security vulnerabilities create the possibility that some wanna-be terrorist and his friends might say - "I just saw on the news how easy it would be to attack a _____" - and then, worse, they might impulsively do it. Detailed stories like this can create the same potential security concerns as posting the TSA training manual online.
Of course, it's the responsibility of our elected representatives and the news media to investigate and report government transgressions and failings. But times are such that we should at least wait a beat and consider the possible unintended adverse affects of doing so - and adjust and temper our public utterances - so as to not - in our attempts to patch security holes - put people in even greater danger.