A Web Site With the Inside Dope on the Middle East

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

abating.

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

in U.S.

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

dress.

-Gabriel Snyder

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

Avenue.

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

Financial Center

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

City.

“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

structural damage.

But while the World

Financial Center’s

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?

“Realistically, the

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

West Street.

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.”

-Sridhar Pappu

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.

employees.

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.”

-G.S.

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

“maximum security.”

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

Square. 

“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.”