No matter how much President
George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld plead that their new war
on terrorism will require a severe clampdown on media access, the public’s
appetite for up-to-the-minute leaks and inside reporting shows no sign of
Part of this is generational,
of course. Lines like Mr. Rumsfeld’s “the Defense Department is not going to
discuss operational issues” won’t cut it with an audience that got accustomed
to hearing about grand-jury testimony as soon as it was given, blue Gap dresses
and their stains, and admissions of affairs during allegedly closed police interviews.
But in this new battleground,
it is natural to assume there will be new sources of inside dope. And in the
days following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon-and as
the U.S. geared up for a military response-people have begun passing around a
link to Debka.com, a crudely designed, Jerusalem-based Web site that offers
Middle Eastern military, diplomatic and intelligence information far more
detailed (and frightening) than what is offered by many news organizations. At
its best, Debka.com reads like a tip sheet from the desert, from people who
seem to know a lot more than Jeff Greenfield.
The Web site begins ominously,
with one-line updates at the top of the page like “German KSK Commandos Dropped
by Helicopter into Afghanistan Sunday Night, to Join U.S. and British Special
Forces,” or “Russian Intelligence Officers Guide U.S.
CommandosThrough Afghan Mountains Following Putin’s Offer of Cooperation.” Many
of these “tips” offer little or no sourcing. Then there is a series of brief
items of about 600 words or so, often sourced just to “Washington
sources” or “Palestinian sources” or
“Israeli intelligence sources.”
A lot of the material on
Debka.com is just plain scary, the kind of stuff that makes you want to close
your eyes and hide under your desk. On Sept. 14 there was an unattributed
report of “an estimated 30 to 50 suicide killers … waiting inside the U.S.
for their orders to strike.” And then there was another report (also
unattributed) describing Osama bin Laden’s army as “not ragged rabble, but a
well-drilled, dedicated Islamic legion of at least 110,000 zealots, raring to
take on Western armies and unafraid of elite U.S. Delta, Rangers and Seals or
British S.A.S. commandos descending on their strongholds.”
But on several occasions,
Debka.com has beaten the Western media to information that has later shown up
newspapers. On Sept. 16, for example, the site was reporting that U.S.
war planners were airlifting the 82nd and 101st Airborne to Pakistan,
as well as contemplating a campaign into Iraq.
This was reported before the Bush administration leaked that one of the
hijackers may have been connected to Saddam Hussein.
As a result of information
like this-and some pretty quick word-of-mouth in the U.S.-Debka.com
has experienced a massive surge of traffic in the past two weeks. Since the
Sept. 11 attacks, it has gone from 150,000 visitors a week to 250,000 per week,
said Giora Shamis, one of the two Israeli journalists who run the site. (Mr.
Shamis and his partner, Diane Shalem, also publish a weekly newsletter at $120
a year, which at the moment has 320 paying customers.) Debka.com claims its
readers include American military and intelligence officials, as well as
foreign correspondents covering the Middle East.
As for the veracity of
Debka.com’s information, that is harder to assess. Considering how tight-lipped
the Bush administration is being about its war plans-and the current level of
rumor-mongering, paranoia and conflicting reporting-it’s tough to cross-check
many stories about military planning.
But one Debka.com story that
looked particularly prescient was its report on Saudi Arabian reluctance to
allow the U.S.
use of a major airfield as its central base of operations. On Sept. 22, when
the Associated Press was moving a story headlined “Saudi
Arabia, Turkey Cooperating in Anti-Terrorism
Effort, Encouraging U.S. Officials,” Debka.com reported that Saudi
Arabia had “refused to let the U.S.
use the kingdom’s new combined air operations command center at Prince Sultan Air
Base near Riyadh.” That refusal,
the Web site said, would delay the beginning of the Americanoffensiveagainst Afghanistan.
Indeed, two days later, on Sept. 24, The New York Times published a front-page
story about problems the U.S.
was having in getting permission to use the Saudi air base.
Mr. Shamis-who was born in Israel
and says he’s worked as a military and intelligence reporter in the region
since the 1970′s for daily papers and The Economist-said he started the site
because of the circumspect nature of foreign-affairs reporting. Journalists
covering international affairs often write their dispatches in the same
cautious and euphemistic language as the diplomats they cover, Mr. Shamis said.
Which is not to say their reports aren’t accurate, he added-it’s just that
their messages are not always apparent to the average reader.
The Saudi Arabian story, he
said, was a prime example. “With all due respect, The New York Times’ fragile,
handle-with-care, approach on U.S.-Saudi relations has not changed in the last
10 years,” Mr. Shamis said. “Hinting and not telling may serve diplomatic
purposes, but does not always satisfy the informed reader.”
Ms. Shalem, who was born in England,
has lived much of her life in Israel
working as a journalist for The Economist and other news organizations. She
agreed with her partner’s assessment of foreign coverage: “I think [readers]
are a lot more intelligent than they are given credit for being. And I think
very often, people get very resentful when you patronize them. And we try not
to do that.”
But what about the warnings
from American officials? After all, Mr. Rumsfeld has, in his public comments,
made revealing information tantamount to putting lives at risk. Mr. Shamis said
the site’s received some calls and e-mails from readers in the American
military or intelligence services to express concern. “And somebody from the
American embassy here [in Israel]
called us, concerned.”
Ms. Shalem added, “They are
all very polite.”
Mr. Shamis said he’s not
worried about publishing damaging information. “I think we have enough
experience to put out information that will cause no harm to anybody,” he said.
“Somebody might say, ‘Oh my God! They’re telling them the troops are in Tajikistan!’
But people who are in the field, they know it. It doesn’t mean the enemy
doesn’t know it.”
So what is Debka.com’s mission
in its dispatches from the murky world of intelligence and counterintelligence?
The two reporters acknowledged a pro-Israeli bias. “Let’s put it this way,” Mr.
Shamis said. “We are Israelis. So whatever bias is coming out of this, that is
possible. It doesn’t mean that we are presenting and defending the official
Israeli points of view, certainly. You can imagine that officials in Israel,
the people who are in charge of whatever they call it, information or
propaganda or whatever … they don’t like us very much.”
Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks,
Debka.com was, according to a Google search, most popular among right-wing
sites like WorldNetDaily.com, as well as Zionist supporters of Israel
and, in a few cases, religious apocalyptics who, one supposes, wanted a
real-time account of the Book of Revelation. And in any case, having an
agenda does not necessarily mean that
your information is always inaccurate. Just ask Matt Drudge about that blue Gap
Since fleeing its headquarters
at 1 World Financial Center on Sept. 11, the staff of The Wall Street Journal
has relocated across the city and broader metro area-sometimes working from
apartments-and assembling the paper in buildings in New Jersey and on Sixth
To date, it’s unclear when The
Journal can return to its home in lower Manhattan.
But this week, Dow Jones, the paper’s parent company, started implementing a
long-haul emergency plan for The Journal, Barron’s and the rest of its
displaced employees. Of the 750 people who worked in the World
building, 250-including W.S.J. managing editor Paul Steiger-will continue to
work from the company’s campus in South Brunswick.
Another 250 will be at two buildings along Sixth
Avenue, while 40 will report from Jersey
“At one point, we thought
about moving the entire newsroom,” said Dow Jones vice president Steven
Goldstein. “Realistically, it wasn’t feasible to do. What we want to do is try
and move by sector versus moving by person.”
On Thursday, Sept. 20, with
passes from the Mayor’s office, some Dow Jones staffers made the company’s
first post-attack sweep of its seven W.F.C. floors. According to Mr. Goldstein,
the building sustained little damage from the explosions, but suffered serious
damage when the towers collapsed. The 16th floor-which houses Barron’s-is in
decent shape, Mr. Goldstein said, but The Journal’s main offices on floors 9
and 10 have “a lot of debris and dust.” Still, he said, no computer servers or
other critical pieces of equipment were destroyed, and the building has no
But while the World
owner, Brookfield Properties, has promised to have Dow Jones back in six to
eight weeks, Mr. Goldstein has his doubts. By some accounts, the disaster area
is only a tenth of the way cleared. Commuting into lower Manhattan
is still chaotic. And how can a newspaper-or any business, for that
matter-operate without phones and T1 lines?
infrastructure won’t be done in eight weeks,” Mr. Goldstein said. “We plan on
moving back, but we just don’t know when that will be.”
Indeed, just how much remains
to be done was evident in a conference call on the afternoon of Monday, Sept.
24, hosted by executives from Brookfield.
During the call, Brookfield reps
reaffirmed their pledge to have most tenants back in two months. Water, they
said, was now available for their buildings, and power would begin returning
this week. Access to the W.F.C. buildings, said Brookfield president and chief
executive Bruce Flatt, would come from the north and south rather than from
At the same time, however,
Brookfield commissioned an environmental-damage report, and its findings have
yet to be released. A timetable for restoring telephone service, said one
Brookfield executive, was something “we don’t know right now. That’s something
we’ll have to deal with in short order.”
Dow Jones vice president of
administrative service Guy Nardo responded by saying: “We can repair our space
tomorrow, but if I don’t have telephones, it’s not going to do me any good.”
Of course, the actual
homecoming itself will present its own unique difficulties. Though Mr. Steiger
was unavailable for comment, Barron’s editor Edwin Finn put it this way: “I
think there could be emotional concerns. A lot of people on my staff saw some
pretty gruesome stuff.”
On Friday, Sept. 21, every
employee of Time Inc. received a small American flag in the mail. The flag,
perfect for taping to a computer monitor or putting in a coffee cup of pens,
was the gift of the consumer-marketing division of Time magazine.
“They thought it would be a
nice idea to give everyone a flag,” said Time Inc. spokesman Peter Costiglio.
“It was something informal, it wasn’t institutional.”
Brian Wolfe, the vice
president for consumer marketing at Time, said the flags were used in a
previous promotion and had been sitting around in a Time Inc. warehouse in
Tampa, Fla., before his group decided to hand them out to all Time Inc.
Still, some at Time
magazine-which is distributed around the world, and whose foreign
correspondents need to maintain a sense of objectivity and impartiality (can
you imagine trying to cross into Afghanistan with a flag in your
backpack?)-found the gesture inappropriate.
Time managing editor Jim Kelly
said he didn’t sign off on the flag distribution, but added: “I wasn’t offended
when it ended up in my in basket.” The question of impartiality comes down to
what is published in his magazine, he said. “As far as Time magazine goes, I am
completely comfortable with the objectivity of the reporting. There is no
jingoism in the magazine.”
On Sept. 16, The New York
Times featured a story by David Barstow headlined “Envisioning an Expensive
Future in the Brave New World of Fortress New York.” The piece surveyed
security experts, examined the safety of potential terrorist targets-St.
Patrick’s, Grand Central, the Statue of Liberty-and displayed a map showing
what life would be like in the eight-block region around Times Square under
And while the map labeled some
of the area’s heavyweights-the Paramount Plaza, the Time & Life Building,
the towers for both Reuters and Condé Nast-it failed to label the building for The
Times itself, on 43rd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. Of course, the
omission seemed particularly strange, given it was a map of, um, Times
“The map didn’t label every
building,” a Times spokesperson told Off the Record. “Those that were labeled
were large skyscrapers in the area. Our building is a much smaller building,
and brick rather than glass.”