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Context of 'October 15, 2001: Rice: Terror Statements Pose ‘National Security Concern’'

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White House press secretary Ari Fleischer tells reporters that they should only print expurgated transcripts of the statements made by Osama bin Laden and other terror leaders, for fear that they might incite anti-American violence or worse, contain coded messages to other terrorists. “At best,” the messages are nothing more than “propaganda inciting people to kill Americans,” Fleischer says of bin Laden’s statements. “At worst, he could be issuing orders to his followers to initiate such attacks.” (BBC 10/11/2001) The statements, and their presumed coded messages, might wind up “in the hands of people who can read it and see something in it,” Fleischer says. (Rich 2006, pp. 31) Fleischer’s demand dovetails with a request from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that the five major television networks not broadcast complete versions of videotaped statements from bin Laden and others (see October 11, 2001). Most American newspapers follow the lead of the New York Times in refusing to comply with Fleischer’s demand. The Times will write in response: “The White House effort is ill advised. … Even if full statements [from bin Laden] were withheld from networks and newspapers, any bin Laden associate… could easily pick them up from foreign broadcast outlets or webcasts. More important, the American people should have unfettered access to information about the terrorist leader and his views.” (Current Events 11/9/2001)

Five major US television networks agree to self-censor their news broadcasts of statements by Osama bin Laden and his associates. The agreement, made by ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox News, comes after a conference call between National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the heads of the networks; Rice’s call comes after White House press secretary Ari Fleischer warns reporters that statements from suspected terrorists could contain anything from incitement to coded messages, and asks them not to print full transcripts of bin Laden’s messages (see October 10, 2001). (BBC 10/11/2001; Rich 2006, pp. 31) Rice asks that, instead of automatically airing bin Laden videotapes, news executives should carefully review the tapes and remove any “inflammatory language” before broadcasting. (Current Events 11/9/2001) The networks say they will now review them first, and edit or censor them as needed. While the American news networks are willing to comply with Rice’s recommendation, the Arab news network Al Jazeera disagrees: chief editor Ibrahim Halil says, “I don’t think the United States, which taught the world about freedom of expression, should now begin to limit it.” Al Jazeera has been the first to broadcast many of the statements in question, broadcasts which were often picked up by American news networks and shown in their entirety. (BBC 10/11/2001)
'A Silky Form of Censorship' - According to the New York Times, the five networks have never before consulted one another as a group and made such a collective policy decision about news coverage. The executives deny that they were threatened or pressured by Rice or any other White House officials: “Ms. Rice made no specific request of news organizations, other than that we consider the possible existence of such messages in deciding whether and how to air portions of al-Qaeda statements,” says an ABC spokesman. They also deny that the decision amounts to censorship. CBS says it is committed to “responsible journalism that informs the public without jeopardizing American lives.” CBS president Andrew Heyward says: “The issue… was raised by the transmission of unedited, extended propaganda messages from a terrorist group… with the will to kill thousands of people. No network wants to serve as the platform for that propaganda.” And Fox News chairman Roger Ailes notes that “[Rice] was very, very careful to talk about freedom of the press and not to suggest how we do our job.” Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a media watchdog group, has a different view. He calls the decision “a silky form of censorship.” Network executives say that the likelihood of bin Laden using his statements to send coded messages to “sleeper” agents in the US is unlikely, and if he is, the agents could get the statements from printed transcripts or Internet video. “What sense would it make to keep the tapes off the air if the message could be found transcripted in newspapers or on the Web?” one executive asks. “The videos could also appear on the Internet. They’d get the message anyway.” (BBC 10/11/2001; Current Events 11/9/2001)
Notion that Censorship Could Disrupt Al-Qaeda Communications Fantastical, Says Media Critic - Author and media critic Frank Rich is fascinated by the assumptions behind Rice’s assertions: in 2006, he will write that the Bush administration “entertain[s] at least a passing fantasy that al-Qaeda, despite its access both to the Internet and to the Arabic superstation Al Jazeera… could be disrupted by having its videos kept off the likes of Fox.” The administration’s “ambitions to manage the news [knows] no bounds.” (Rich 2006, pp. 31)
British Broadcasters Refuse Similar Request - A similar request by the British government is flatly refused; the BBC issues a short statement reading, “Government interference will be resisted.” The Canadian government does not issue such a request, leaving the decision of whether to air unedited broadcasts of the terrorists’ statements up to news executives and editors. (Hurst 9/8/2002)

Days after National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice persuaded the five major American news broadcasters to self-censor their coverage of statements issued by Osama bin Laden and other terror suspects (see October 11, 2001), Rice is publicly asked if the government believes, as she then asserted, that bin Laden and others might be using those statements as ways to convey coded messages to “sleeper” agents inside the US. Rice acknowledges that the government is busily analyzing those statements for any such coded messages. Of her request that the networks censor their coverage of bin Laden, Rice says: “The point to the networks—and let me just say that I think the networks have been very responsible in the way that they have dealt with this—my message to them was that it’s not to me to judge news value of something like this, but it is to say that there’s a national security concern about an unedited, 15 or 20-minute spew of anti-American hatred that ends in a call to go out and kill Americans. And I think that that was fully understood.” She cannot verify that any coded messages have yet been discovered, saying, “We are still concerned about whether there might be some signaling in here, but I don’t have anything more for you on that yet.” (White House 10/15/2001)

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice tells reporters, “We will leave Iraq completely in the hands of Iraqis as quickly as possible.” (White House 4/4/2003)

President George Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice meet with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. (ABC News 7/21/2003; US President 7/28/2003)


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