by Brad Jacobson
Was the U.S. media admirably discreet or just plain ineffectual in covering news of the arrest of three men suspected of plotting to assassinate Barack Obama during his acceptance speech at Invesco Field?
First, consider the evidence: One of the men arrested, Nathan Johnson said the other two men, Tharin Gartrell and Shawn Robert Adolph, “had planned to kill Barack Obama…on Thursday…,” which was why they were in Denver, and that “Adolph was going to shoot Obama from a high vantage point using a 22-250 rifle which had been sighted at 750 yards.” According to the FBI, “Johnson was directly asked if they had come to Denver to kill Obama and he responded in the affirmative.” The Denver police found in their possession two high-powered rifles with scopes, 85 rounds of ammunition, a bullet-proof vest, walkie-talkies, wigs, fake I.D.s, hotel reservations near the convention and 4.4 grams of methamphetamine, an amount, however, too small to be charged with more than simple possession. (Yet, for some reason, Colorado U.S. Attorney Troy Eid put a much greater focus on this relatively little amount of meth and their use of it than on the other apparent highly incriminating pieces of evidence obtained, including Johnson’s statements). All three men have long criminal records, are suspected of having ties to white supremacist groups, and one of the men, Adolph, who was on the Weld County, Colo., sheriff department’s “Most Wanted” list for burglary, larceny, aggravated motor vehicle theft and other charges, has a violent criminal history and is being held on $1 million bond for outstanding warrants.
During U.S. Attorney of Colorado Troy Eid’s peculiar press conference Tuesday night, he characterized the men as “just a bunch of meth heads,” framing his question-and-answer session with reporters more like an anti-drug campaign sloganeer than a chief law enforcement official: “You know, I don’t know, uh, bunch of meth heads get together, I don’t know what they do, I don’t get inside their brain. But we take them very seriously what they do. I have to just emphasize this is a group of people, there were a number of people, that are using meth. I don’t know how many of you know meth, anyone here not know about meth? This is a really terrible drug. People do all sorts of stupid things on meth.” He followed that response with: “There is no credible threat right now and there was no credible threat based on the evidence that we have to Senator Obama or anybody else related to what we know about this case.” Asked what the weapons could be for (not to mention the ammo, bullet-proof vest, wigs, fake I.D.s, etc.), Eid answered only, “You know, I don’t know what they were for and we’ll keep looking into that.” Eid went on to say, “You know, they didn’t, they didn’t reveal a plan. I think what you can see in the affidavit was, uh, a lot of racist rantings and a lot of dislike for the idea of Senator Obama as an African-American person of color being able to pursue that office.”
But Eid’s statement appears to be patently false. As reported by the Associated Press:
Johnson later told a federal agent that the men talked about assassinating Obama only because he was black, according to a federal arrest affidavit. Johnson said he also heard Adolf say that he wanted to kill Obama “on the day of his inauguration” and that he would “find high ground to set up and shoot Obama,” the affidavit said.
That’s not merely, as Eid called it, “the racist rantings of drug abusers.” Rather, coupled with the arsenal found, it shows motive, intent and a plan. And, to be clear, contrary to what Eid told the press, it was in the affidavit.
Moreover, sprinkled throughout Eid’s comments downplaying the threat and the risk posed by these “meth heads,” he rather tone-deafly reiterated some variation of, “Like I said we all have an open mind about this, we take this very seriously.” As if stating upfront that these men are nothing more than stoned losers and failing to recognize how their high-powered arsenal, their presence in hotels being used by DNC attendees and their blatant language couldn’t constitute a credible threat doesn’t actually undercut his claims to “take this very seriously.”
What of that evidence specifically? Eid said, “You know, as the affidavit shows, there was a search done. They searched the hotel room, they searched vehicles, and they obviously have looked for any kind of evidence that might indicate a threat or a plot or a conspiracy. And at the this time we have insufficient evidence to believe that any of those things occurred.” Really?
When a reporter questioned just how serious Eid and the Feds were taking these arrests, Eid explained, “At these particular moments, to go into the issue of a legal threat…when you talk about threatening presidential candidates, there’s a legal standard you got to meet. It’s got to be a credible threat as defined by the law. It’s what the law calls a true threat. And that means that someone has a way to carry it out. And at this time we don’t have sufficient evidence that there was a true threat.”
An explanation that deserved a torrent of obvious follow-ups and overall skepticism in the media. One such follow-up, for a direct and exceedingly timely comparison, should’ve included: How does this not constitute a “true threat,” when, just last week, another man, Marc Harold Ramsey, an inmate already incarcerated at the Arapahoe County Jail in Colorado, was charged by Eid with sending a threatening letter to John McCain from behind bars? The contents of the envelope? A white powdery substance that turned out to be harmless and a letter stating, “Senator McCain, If you are reading this then you are already DEAD! Unless of course you can’t or don’t breathe.” If convicted, Ramsey faces up to five years in federal prison and S250,000 in fines.
But by Eid’s own definition of a true threat, in which, “someone has a way to carry it out,” what kind of credible access to a dangerous substance did an already incarcerated inmate have? Of course the “powder-like” substance turned out to be as lethal as, what it probably was, baby powder.
In bringing this charge against Ramsey, Eid made clear to the press, “A death threat is not a legitimate form of political expression.” Right. Unless you’re meth-addled racists with real rifles, scopes, rounds of ammunition, disguises, fake I.D.s and bullet-proof vests and a stated plan to murder the first African-American presidential candidate giving his acceptance speech on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Then, you’re just goofy “meth heads” who can’t be taken seriously. Your plans somehow more “aspirational than operational,” as Eid also put it.
(Incidentally, if you think Eid sounds curiously like a typical George W. Bush appointee — somewhat unprofessional, seemingly incompetent, stonewalling, less than brilliant — he is. Not only that, he was appointed at the height of Monica Goodling’s infamously and illegally partisan vetting process. What’s more, right before Eid’s appointment to U.S. Attorney, he and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff worked together at the same top Washington lobbying firm, Greenberg Traurig, where Eid, allegedly, was a less visible player in Abramoff’s dealings to defraud American Indian tribes.)
Speaking with a reporter the other night who has a great deal of experience on the national security beat, I was informed of two things. First, what many might think: in such situations, the media often defers to the Secret Service in not making a 24/7 circus out of the events, which, they fear, might either encourage copycats seeking their fifteen minutes of fame or accidentally divulge information that diminishes their ability to protect a candidate. This same expert on national security reporting, however, made clear that it remains the journalist’s duty in this situation to not merely parrot the authorities but to confirm if “no credible threat” is a reasonable conclusion to draw and to provide that information to the public in a responsible, sober manner.
But on television Tuesday, MSNBC barely edged out CNN for burying news of these arrests. MSNBC didn’t bat an eye away from Hillary Clinton’s impending speech; CNN followed suit but allowed for the swiftest of mention of the arrests at its top-of-the-hour news brief. This mimicked MSNBC and CNN’s online presence of the story. At 7 p.m. (EST) Tuesday, CNN’s homepage listed 14 top stories that trumped news of the arrests, including “Did Bill Clinton take a dig at Obama,” “Edwards wife blasted for keeping affair secret,” “Lying pastor had porn fetish, not cancer” and “Elephant warms to baby she stomped.” And the headline CNN used for this link, it’s 15th top story? “No evidence of ‘true threat’ to…” So if you weren’t already aware of the story, you’d have no idea what this was referring to unless you happened to click on this already buried link. At the same time, the story didn’t make the cut at all on MSNBC’s homepage.
Additionally, all three major broadcast nightly news programs — ABC World News, NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News — and PBS NewsHour — failed to mention the story. There did seem to be something ironic about each newscast’s obsessive and incessant Iago-like riffs on the Clinton-Obama rift (however real or conflated) while simultaneously ignoring news about a potential assassination plot against the presidential candidate whose near future was being endlessly hypothesized.
This scant coverage continued Wednesday, with The New York Times, our paper of record, burying the story at the bottom of page A18; the Washington Post printed its corresponding report on page A23. By Thursday, the story officially disappeared into the ether.
I was also assured by the same veteran national security reporter that despite the U.S. Attorney downplaying this incident, “I guarantee you the Secret Service is taking this seriously and is so far up the ass of these guys [the three men arrested] you cannot even imagine.” This reporter also noted that the Secret Service operates independently as well in tandem with other federal authorities and may not agree with the U.S. Attorney’s assessment.
Seeking to confirm whether the Secret Service agreed that “no credible threat” existed, I contacted them directly. Ed Donovan, assistant special agent in charge of government and public affairs at the Secret Service, told me only, “I have no further comment other than what was said at the press conference yesterday.”
Not necessarily a refutation nor an affirmation of U.S. Attorney Troy Eid’s assessment.
Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech last night. Fortunately, it went off without a hitch. But ask yourself this: Is Senator Obama safer in the coming weeks because the U.S. media did its best to ignore, downplay or disappear information about the arrests and suspected plot on his life? With the Bush administration’s track record of politicizing the Justice Department as well as appointing cronies and incompetents, isn’t it more incumbent on our journalists to ask the right questions and responsibly report information that encourages U.S. law enforcement officials to perform their jobs with ever greater vigilance?
With the first African-American presidential nominee now vying head-to-head for the White House, these questions need to be addressed immediately.
Cross-posted from MediaBloodhound.