A journalist’s responsibility to help counter terrorism forces

I have a confession to make.  I am a huge New York Times fan.  I have read it religiously for decades and even in my retirement I buy a copy that a downtown Ottawa news seller sets aside for me on a daily basis (thanks Comerford Cigar Store!).  No one source is exhaustive or 100% neutral, but you will be hard pressed to find a better all-around paper than the ‘old gray lady’ as it is nicknamed.

I also have my favourite NYT columnists and reporters (Paul Krugman, Nicholas Kristof, Thomas Friedman and even Maureen Dowd on occasion).  When it comes to terrorism reporting, I turn to Eric Schmidt and Rukmini Callimachi as I find their coverage outstanding.  I still admire the former but I have some questions for the latter.

Don’t get me wrong. Ms. Callimachi is an outstanding journalist and her submissions on Islamic State are among the best I have seen anywhere.  If you didn’t catch it check out her piece with Andrew Rossback on what they learned about IS from the documentation they left behind: it is superb.  She has also created a series of podcasts which I have just started to listen to.  It was in the very first one that I came across information that I found disturbing and may constitute negligence on the part of Ms.Callimachi.

Ms. Callimachi located a Canadian member of IS online who had returned unbeknownst to Canada (well, he told her that no one knew he was back: perhaps some people – i.e. CSIS and/or the RCMP – do).  Much to her surprise, he agreed to meet her in an undisclosed Canadian location to answer her primary question: what was it about IS that made tens of thousands, including thousands of Westerners, want to join?

So the two had their chat and all is well.  But is it?  Did Ms. Callimachi not have an obligation to pass on what she knew to Canadian law enforcement or security intelligence agencies?  After all, we are talking about a man who willingly joined a terrorist group, and not just any terrorist group but one of the most brutal we have seen in a very long time.  Not only had this man committed a serious offence under Canadian law (the fact that he hooked up with IS) but he could very well pose a direct threat to innocent Canadians.  If she did not relay this information, is she negligent?

Look I get it that journalists want to protect their sources: we in intelligence have the same mantra.  I even remember an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show where the star went to prison rather than give up her source.  Where is the line, however, between source protection and public safety?  If her IS terrorist went on to kill someone somewhere in Canada, what if any would her responsibility for the act be?

I understand Ms. Callimachi’s desire to get her story and her skepticism surrounding a lot that has been said and written about IS because a lot of what I have seen and read is shit. I share many of her doubts and commend her for her efforts. What I am less sure about is where her job as a journalist ends and her job as a citizen begins.  Maybe reporters are taught what to do and when (my eldest daughter went through for journalism at Carleton and she told me that these scenarios are indeed discussed in the program although she recalls that the requirement to report threat information was left up to the individual, especially if the journalist’s life could be in danger).  In any event do those who work on the terrorist beat not have a special duty to help thwart terrorist attacks?  Maybe she did indeed do this: if so, kudos to her.

If Ms. Callimachi had snitched on her source she would have lost him and could have put her own life on the line (she was already apparently targeted by IS for her work).  That should not be taken lightly.  And yet she also had good information on a man who belonged to a group that wants us all dead.  No, not all IS terrorists are that bloodthirsty or capable of carrying out an attack.  But some certainly were and are.  So in the end, who should make that call?  My bias aside, my money nevertheless lies on our security intelligence agencies.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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