Irrational Security | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Irrational Security

Go where the action is: national-security punditry!

Lately, I've really been envying Jack Kelly, the Post-Gazette's "national-security writer." Chicks dig that national-security mystique, and I'm sick of writing about Rick Santorum.


I lack national-security credentials, but that's not necessarily a problem. Judging from Kelly's Sunday columns in the P-G, being a national-security writer doesn't mean you have to write about national security much. Or know what you're talking about.


In recent weeks, other journalists have reported that: North Korea now claims to have nukes; the CIA -- and the Iraqi government we installed -- have engaged in fatal human-rights abuses; and the U.S. government is misspending money intended to defend American ports. Kelly hasn't found time to speak to any of that. He did spill some ink on declining readership at the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, though.


Even columns that are about security usually feature tired media criticisms. On Feb. 27, for example, Kelly contended, "Those who get their news from the 'mainstream media' are surprised by developments in Iraq, as they were surprised by our swift victory in Afghanistan" and other events. National-security writer Jack Kelly, one assumes, saw it all coming.


Actually, no. On Oct. 28, 2001 -- days before Afghanistan fell -- Kelly wrote, "[t]here is no longer enough time to achieve significant military success before winter and Ramadan bring military operations to a virtual close." Back then, Kelly's gripe was that journalists were too optimistic: Thanks to journalists with "virtually no knowledge of military affairs," he said, Americans had a "Pollyanna-meets-Dr. Pangloss view...of how things are going in Afghanistan."


Kelly was wrong and the Pollyannas were right, of course. But he kept at it, making predictions and observations the New York Times dared not print -- sometimes for good reason.


In August 2002, for example, Kelly warned "Saddam is all but certain to use chemical and biological weapons against U.S. troops." Still, he added, talk about war with Iraq might be a ruse: "There is a fair possibility Iran, not Iraq, will be the next target." Indeed, "If we attack Iraq, Iran almost certainly will attack our shipping in the Persian Gulf." The following year, Kelly predicted that weapons inspectors would offer concrete proof of Iraq's WMD..."at just about the time [Presidential candidate Howard] Dean wraps up the Democratic nomination."


Or not.


Making half-baked predictions is part of the fun of column-writing, and many people (including me) guessed wrong about Iraq's WMD. But the rest of us, at least, stopped believing in WMD a few months after the invasion. By contrast, last May Kelly approvingly cited a claim in Insight magazine that "In virtually every case -- chemical, biological, nuclear and ballistic missiles -- the United States has found the weapons and the programs that [Saddam Hussein] concealed."


Kelly's media critique, it seems, applies best to Kelly himself. Do reporters fall for stories that confirm their beliefs? Kelly seems to. Consider his frequent reliance on those do-it-yourself Internet pundits known as "bloggers."


In three out of four columns in February, Kelly quoted bloggers as often as he quoted anyone else. On one occasion, this helped. Kelly become arguably the first print journalist to report a topic raging on the Internet: a CNN executive's claim that American troops were targeting journalists in Iraq. But sadly, the value of blogger insight varies.


On Feb. 6, for example, Kelly wrote about a hoax: a terrorist video which claimed a toy "action figure" was a U.S. soldier being held hostage. Kelly echoed a prediction by "Web logger John Hinderaker," who said the fiasco could make the insurgents "laughingstocks throughout the Arab world."


Days after the column appeared, a terrorist bomb killed 120 Iraqis. That probably quieted any Arab knee-slapping. But why include Hinderaker at all? Is he a soldier in Iraq? An expert on Arab politics?


Actually, Hinderaker's online resume bills him as a Minneapolis lawyer who writes about issues like income tax and affirmative action. A Harvard and Dartmouth grad, "Mr. Hinderaker lives with his family in Apple Valley, Minnesota," the site informs us. Reporters may be desk jockeys with no clue about what's going on in Iraq, just as Kelly claims. But at least they aren't relying for expertise on Apple Valley attorneys.


You don't need to be a national-security expert to make bogus predictions, or to do a Google search to "prove" your point. Any partisan jackass can do that. How do you think I wrote this column?

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