BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. For almost two weeks now in press conferences and on talk shows the White House has made its case that whatever information it had before September 11th does not mean that the terrorism of that day could possibly have been foreseen or countered. "Dots to be connected" is the most popular way to look at these bits of information. A Phoenix flight school; a memo to the president while he was in Crawford, Texas; a 1999 report titled The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: Who Becomes a Terrorist and Why. The last dot was a document that had been in the public record for two years at the time of the terrorist attacks. The National Intelligent Council and the Library of Congress prepared the report, and it was never a classified document, but that doesn't mean it was widely known before this week. John Solomon of the Associated Press was the first to report on the existence of this paper. He joins us now. John, welcome to OTM.
JOHN SOLOMON: Well thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: This document was posted on line -- kind of hidden in plain view. Nobody knew about it or at least no members of the administration or of the press knew about it. How did you find it?
JOHN SOLOMON: Around -- just bef-- in the days before this story, the Bush administration began to say they -- no one in government ever envisioned a suicide jetliner attack like the ones that occurred on September 11th, and so we went to take a look and see how much people in government knew about the idea that an Al Qaeda operative had in '95 to dive-bomb an airplane into the CIA or another government building. And in the course of that we came across this very open source public document written for the National Intelligence Council.
BOB GARFIELD:When you say "you came upon it," I mean was it like Hillary Clinton and the-- Rose Law firm records? Did you just find them in a file folder on your desk? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
JOHN SOLOMON: Oh, no. [LAUGHS] I did a lot of interviews with experts in the-- terrorism field asking, you know, how much has the government debated this possibility; they mentioned this report. Didn't remember who had written it; remembered it was for the National Intelligence Council. Did some phone calls over there. Tracked down the proper source which is an office of the Library of Congress and-- and then went up on the web site and found the report.
BOB GARFIELD:To the extent that the government was asleep at the switch I guess the media have been too if it's taken these 8 months for this document to materialize. If it took you so long and if it took the media so long to unearth this fairly eerie prediction of what might take place, is it fair to suggest that the government somehow was-- derelict in its--duties?
JOHN SOLOMON: We certainly could have done a better job before September 11th of identifying the potential threats and sharing information among government so that we had a complete picture, yet if you were to go back and look, you'll find all sorts of testimony up on the Hill before September 11th -- George Tenet twice in two years went up and gave very stark assessments -- our CIA director did -- about the threat of terrorism. If you go look at the Q&A after that, no one in Congress wanted to talk about it. There was only maybe 2 or 3 questions when I went back through the Q&A that went back to his, you know, very stark warning. The media covered what it knew. I think a lot of the threats about terrorism are things that were classified. Soon as September 11th happened, I think you have to take a look at the media reporting very closely, because there were a lot of very strong pieces of reporting identifying things we knew about before September 11th within a couple of days -- AP and the Washington Post and others in the Minneapolis newspapers reported Moussaoui and the fact that he was sitting in the jail. September 24th the Washington Post had a wonderful story taking a look at some of the early threats of hijackers and the idea that flying a plane into a building wasn't new. It didn't have the level of detail that we've come across in, in recent days, as we've done more reporting, but I think you - if you were to go back through the archives, you'll see a tremendous amount of journalism committed, taking a look at these various threats.
BOB GARFIELD:And yet in the same way that the U.S. intelligence agencies were unable to protect against a specific attack on a specific day at a specific location, the media world was unable to connect the dots before September 11th.
JOHN SOLOMON: That's a very fair assessment.
BOB GARFIELD: I mean I've seen in many newspapers - and I -who knows? - maybe the AP supplied one of these - I don't know - a time line - and on the time line are 5 or 6 bits of information -- Arabs in flight schools - Moussaoui in Minnesota -- this document that we're discussing now and, and you know and a clear pattern emerges. But what gets forgotten when these time lines are printed is that you - for all of these 5 or 6 bits of information -- these dots --there are millions and millions of other bits - other dots of irrelevant or untrue or totally unrelated bits of information. Do you think the press is doing a good enough job, particularly in the current furor of what the president knew and when did he know it, to contextualize the difficulty in, in separating the signal from the noise?
JOHN SOLOMON: It is a challenge, and you have to overlay something else that's going on which - there's politics in Washington. I know that's surprising but-- a lot of the distribution of information or the control of information right now comes from people who have a partisan mode of moving into a very important election year. And I'll give you a very good example. Earlier this week I, I ascertained some information related to the Phoenix memo that I thought was relevant, and, and separated a little bit of the - put some perspective into all this breathless reporting that's going on, and that was that the agent himself, Ken Williams, who wrote the memo from Phoenix warning of the Arabs in flight schools back in July of last year himself marked the memo "routine." Now I wrote that on a day where there was a lot of spin control going on in Washington and a lot of other news organizations had a completely different take on their story the next day which is that he considered it urgent - im--important-- serious information. Now that's true -- but in fact he did mark it "routine," and you really had to separate the facts. At the end of the day I think by talking to 4 or 5 different people from 4 or 5 different perspectives, you have a much more toned, balanced, fair and complete story, and I think that process is what needs to happen. If journalists just go out the first time they hear a breathless piece of information and they stop their reporting at that point, they're doing a disservice to the public.
BOB GARFIELD: John Solomon, thank you very much.
JOHN SOLOMON: Okay!
BOB GARFIELD:John Solomon supervises the Associated Press's investigative unit which has been looking into what the government knew before September 11th and what it has been doing since. [MUSIC]