Now, is that paragraph trying to tell its readers that the Padilla case was a “significant threat,” or that it wasn’t? Here’s a reminder of what we know about the alleged “significant threat” represented by Padilla:
“It turns out that last year some time, ‘U.S. officials last year backed off that claim [the dirty bomb claim] and said Padilla had plotted with Al Qaeda leaders to blow up apartment buildings by using natural gas.’ Since Padilla, as far as any leaked rumors about him go (no actual charges have been filed against him, of course, nor any actual evidence made public) is still only accused of thinking about doing bad things, I think we should just call him the “alleged gedanken bomber” and leave it at that.
No evidence has been made public that Padilla ever did anything illegal; indeed, no evidence has been made public that he even thought about doing anything illegal, only allegations. Do any of the other ten cases rise above the level of the Padilla case? Given the “facts” released by the White House, which are of this character — “In 2003 the U.S. and a partner nation disrupted a plot to attack a tourist site outside the United States.” — you would have to place an awful lot of unjustified faith in the veracity of the U.S. government to think so.

The headlines are important because TV news, from which most Americans get their information, rarely gets beyond the headlines to the qualifiers. To TV viewers, the U.S. has foiled ten serious plots. Fact. Full stop. And that concept is further illustrated by the other story in the news – the “letter” from Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which the Pentagon “revealed” this morning (just by coincidence, I’m sure). We are told that “[the Pentagon spokesperson] would not say where, when or how it was obtained, or who intercepted it, but he said the Pentagon is confident it is authentic.” Despite that impeccable pedigree, we are then treated to the full litany of the contents of this alleged letter. Once again, though, when you hear about this part of the story on TV, you’ll probably listen in vain for the word “alleged”; the story is simply presented as fact.

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