Mark Steyn can get fooled again

Last week the gullible Mark Steyn was
busted by
Media Watch for basing a column on Johnelle Bryant’s crazy story about
being visited by Mohammed Atta in early May 2000. She said that Atta
threatened to cut her throat and wanted a loan to buy a crop duster.
Unfortunately for her story, Atta wasn’t in the country until
June. And, as I wrote

Strangely enough, Bryant did not tell anyone else at the time about
Atta threatening to cut her throat. A normal person might guess that
this was because she made the story up, but Steyn triumphantly
concludes that the evilness that is multiculturalism convinced Bryant
that death threats are perfectly acceptable behaviour.

Bryant also said:

he started talking about um, an organization that uh, back in his country, and he kept referring to his country and I can only assume now that he was referring to Afghanistan. At the time I didn’t know if he meant Egypt or Afghanistan, um, that [SIGH] uh, they had an organization in, and he, I couldn’t understand, he got really emotional when he talked about it, like really excited about it. And, um, he said that they, they could use people. In other words, that they could use people, um, as, as members. …

I know now that he talking about al Qaeda, but the way pronounced it, it sounded like he was talking about a woman’s name. He kept saying uh, it sound like, Akeda, Akeda, “Surely you’ve heard. Surely you know, Akeda.” And I went, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah right.” [LAUGHS] I mean, I didn’t know what he was talking about. …

he mentioned Al Qaeda. He mentioned Osama bin Laden. … he mentioned that um, this man would someday be known as the world’s greatest leader. I didn’t know who he was talking about.

This isn’t even slightly plausible. Why would Atta identify himself as
a member of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization? Remember that
the US was already at

with Al Qaeda.

Unfortunately, Mark Steyn has failed to correct his column. Instead he has mounted a ludicrous defence. After taking Bryant’s uncorroborated story as gospel he attacks Media Watch for relying on a report backed up by actual evidence:

What sort of fearless media watchdogs take an official report and US immigration “records” as gospel? A bunch of saps, that’s who. This week’s big news in the US is the revelation that an intelligence unit by the name of Able Danger had Atta and co in its sights more than a year before 9/11. And what’s the key revelation?

A classified military intelligence unit called ‘Able Danger’ identified Atta and three other hijackers in 1999 as potential members of a terrorist cell in New York City.

So, despite the 9/11 Commission’s touching faith in US immigration’s “record” of June 3rd 2000 as Mohammed Atta’s first entry to the US, military intelligence puts him on American soil in 1999.

So, did US military intelligence put Atta on American soil in 1999? Well, no.
If you follow the link that Steyn gave, you don’t find the quote he gave. Instead you find this:

During the July 12, 2004, meeting with the military official, the officer said he recalled seeing Atta’s name and photo on an analyst’s chart made by the secret Able Danger unit, the statement released by Kean and Hamilton said.

The relevant data discussed by the officer showed Atta to be a member of an al-Qaida cell in New York City from February to April 2000, the statement said.

But it also says:

a military official who made the claim had no documentation to back it up. … ‘He could not describe what information had led to this supposed Atta identification,” the statement said of the military official.

And from the Commission’s full statement:

The interviewee had no documentary evidence and said he had only seen
the document briefly some years earlier. He could not describe what
information had led to this supposed Atta identification. Nor could
the interviewee recall, when questioned, any details about how he
thought a link to Atta could have been made by this DOD program in
2000 or any time before 9/11. The Department of Defense documents had
mentioned nothing about Atta, nor had anyone come forward between
September 2001 and July 2004 with any similar information. Weighing
this with the information about Atta’s actual activities, the
negligible information available about Atta to other U.S. government
agencies and the German government before 9/11, and the interviewer’s
assessment of the interviewee’s knowledge and credibility, the
Commission staff concluded that the officer’s account was not
sufficiently reliable to warrant revision of the report or further

The “military intelligence” that Steyn is relying on is even flimsier than Bryant’s story.

If you look at the 9/11 Commission’s report you can see why they ruled out the possibility of Atta being in New York City from February to April:

Atta returned to Hamburg [from Pakistan] in late February …

After leaving Afghanistan, the hijackers made clear efforts to avoid appearing radical. Once back in Hamburg, they distanced themselves from conspicuous extremists like Zammar, whom that knew attracted unwanted attention from the authorities. They also changed their appearance and behavior. Atta wore Western clothing, shaved his beard, and no longer attended extremist mosques.

The Commission had witnesses who had seen Atta in Hamburg after he got back from Afghanistan, so he could not have been living in New York City at the time.

The Australian has also published a story in attempt to bail Steyn out. It looks as if the reporter was told to dig up some evidence, any evidence, to support Steyn but all he could come up with was this:

Ms Bryant could not be reached for comment this week but Bob Epling, president of Community Bank of Florida, which let office space to the agency Ms Bryant worked for, said he had no doubt Atta visited the premises.

He said Ms Bryant had referred Atta to the “agriculture-friendly” CBF. “Atta was 15 steps away from walking into our loan department and making an application,” Mr Epling said yesterday. “He chose not to.”

Or, to put it another way, Atta did not visit the CBF and nobody there saw him. Epling hasn’t provided any evidence at all to support Bryant—all he has done is say that he believes her.

Predictably, Tim Blair supports Steyn. I imagine that if Philip Adams had based a column on Bryant’s crazy story, Blair would have mocking him for being taken in.

Update: Blair has added an update where he links to a post by John Podhoretz who attempts to undermine the 9/11 Commission with this:

That denial would be significant except that the 9/11 Commission folks at first denied they’d ever received ANY information about Able Danger and then backed down two days later. So it’s not clear why we should accept this denial about the Afghanistan meeting on faith.

Did they really deny that they had ever received ANY information about Able Danger? Let’s review their first reponse :

A former spokesman for the Sept. 11 commission, Al Felzenberg, confirmed that members of its staff, including Philip Zelikow, the executive director, were told about the program on an overseas trip in October 2003 that included stops in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Mr. Felzenberg said the briefers did not mention Mr. Atta’s name.

So they didn’t deny that they had received information about Able Danger and they haven’t backed down from their denial of Weldon’s claims about the Afghanistan meeting. What happened two days later was that after reviewing their documents they found that Atta had been mentioned at the later meeting discussed above.

Update 2: More from Podhoretz:

From tomorrow’s Time Magazine about Rep. Curt Weldon and his Able Danger claims, which arose out of a soon-to-be-published book: “In a particularly dramatic scene in Weldon’s book, Countdown to Terror, the Pennsylvania Republican described personally handing to then-Deputy National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, just after Sept. 11, an Able Danger chart produced in 1999 identifying Atta. But Weldon told TIME he’s no longer certain Atta’s name was on that original document. The congressman says he handed Hadley his only copy. Still, last week he referred reporters to a recently reconstructed version of the chart in his office where, among dozens of names and photos of terrorists from around the world, there was a color mug shot of Mohammad Atta, circled in black marker.”

If Time’s account is accurate, Weldon has done something very, very bad with this whole story — something either knowingly dishonest, unknowingly crazy, or foolishly naive — and he should be held accountable for it.

And (my emphasis):

The commission hears, in July 2004, from a guy who says that four years earlier he saw, on a chart with 60 other people on it, the face and name of Mohammed Atta. He has no proof of this, and the commission itself examined documents at the Pentagon months earlier from the same operation and found nothing there. With nothing else to go on, this isn’t even worthy of a footnote. It’s just blather and palaver, and let’s be honest here — would you have remembered a specific name like “Mohammed Atta” from a list of 60 names in 2000? We didn’t know it was 60 names when this first came out. Weldon and the Naval officer guy made it sound like there were only five names. …

None of this passes the smell test. And an apology is due the 9/11 Commission staff at the very least, I think, because some of us were in effect contending that they were sloppy or dishonest or covering something up. Sounds like they were being professional to me.


  1. #1 Ian Gould
    August 13, 2005

    Is this how the “Multiple Oswalds” theories got started?

    In any case, Atta is, apparently, a fairly common arabic name.

    A check at turns up nine listings for “Atta” in Sydney.

    Mohammed Atta, 9-11 hijacker, has also been confused on occasion with Palestinian terrorist Mahmoud Atta.

  2. #2 zoot
    August 14, 2005

    Well, as I said to Elvis just the other day …

  3. #3 slickdpdx
    August 14, 2005

    Steyn is right regarding U.S. Immigration records. Such records most likely constitute merely the record of Atta’s contact with Immigration authorities. They are hardly dispositive as a record of when he was present and when he wasn’t. The record may even consist of a self-reported (hence Atta-reported) entry date upon Atta’s contact with Immigration, AFTER he had already entered the U.S. I don’t know what the visa info in the 9/11 report is. I guess we should look if we really want to know. Regardless of the nature of the records, Atta was a criminal and it would hardly be above him to sneak in or use false documents. So the immigration record is of only limited use.

    If you just want to bash Tim Blair, I guess it doesn’t matter. I expect more from an intelligent commentator. I enjoy your blog, but some of your axes are dulling with so much grinding.

  4. #4 Capt. Trollypants
    August 14, 2005

    Why are you not discussing Australia’s performance in the Ashes? It is clear that you don’t want to address it. Typical liberal.

  5. #5 Pinko Punko
    August 14, 2005

    Never mind the Captain. The Aussies clearly have to shake things up, they have been so good for so long, they are not responding well to the pressure. I expect them to put on a world record tomorrow. The pitch should be able to be scored on, but will they play positively? They might just sit back and go for the draw.

  6. #6 Chris Jarrett
    August 14, 2005

    In a court ruling, a judge would describe Bryant’s story as ‘lacking an air of reality’.

    As for axes, some things need to be treated with sledgehammers.

  7. #7 Carleton Wu
    August 14, 2005

    I think you’re putting the burden of evidence in the wrong place.
    All of the official sources indicate that Atta was in Germany. Admittedly, this isn’t conclusive, but there isn’t any solid evidence to the contrary. Any account that contradicts that record should be treated with some skepticism- and such a fantastic account requires a double dose.

    If I claimed that I had lunch with Atta two weeks before 9-11, and he told me that he was in the pay of the Chinese- would you tend to believe me without any additional evidence, or would you tend to believe the official records until you saw actual evidence supporting my story?

  8. #8 Alastair
    August 14, 2005

    I imagine that if Philip Adams had based a column on Bryant’s crazy story, Blair would have mocking him for being taken in.

    … or taking you to task for the (grammar) typo.

    Which he may well have done for all I know.

  9. #9 snuh
    August 14, 2005

    well of course blair supports steyn. i mean, i read steyn’s original article, and the follow up, and as far as i can tell, neither contained any important[1] errors[2].

    [1] “important” being defined subjectively from the presumed point of view of tim blair, with the effect that [2] the phrase “important errors” can be read as including only errors of punctuation or spelling, to the exclusion of any errors of fact or logic, of which there are several.

  10. #10 slickdpdx
    August 14, 2005

    Carleton: Good points. I just thought the vitriol was a little over the top. To the rest – I forgot about the Australian rivalries involved. I’ll take it all with a grain of salt.

  11. #11 ben
    August 15, 2005

    I think Tim missed the fact that Atta could have transported or teleported into the US prior to his other first known visits, kinda like on star trek.

  12. #12 Jack Strocchi
    August 15, 2005

    Steyn is an entertaining and infuriating right wing fabulist who writes too much and appears not to have the time, or inclination, to check his facts. There are plenty enough real problems to go around with wanky multiculturalism, without making up fantastic ones.

  13. #13 ahem
    August 15, 2005

    Regardless of the nature of the records, Atta was a criminal and it would hardly be above him to sneak in or use false documents.

    Except for the small matter that there’s no evidence of him having done so, and lots of evidence to suggest that it was plenty easy to come and go on legitimate documents.

    Even Podhoretz is now feeling more than a bit burned by Weldon’s increasingly bizarre and inconsistent ‘findings’, which have much more to do with his committee jockeying than national security.

  14. #14 slickdpdx
    August 15, 2005

    Looks like you were right and I was wrong.

  15. #15 Ian Gould
    August 15, 2005


    We all make mistakes. Not all of us have the courage to admit it.

    Thank you.

  16. #16 z
    August 16, 2005

    “She said that Atta threatened to cut her throat and wanted a loan to buy a crop duster.”
    As if that isn’t the oldest story in the book.

  17. #17 z
    August 19, 2005

    Full circle back to comment #1: For anyone who has not seen reference to this already, the key to the Atta thing may well be the existence of an unrelated Abu Nidal member named Mohammed Atta, arrested in New York in 1987, and whose name would presumably therefore pop up in various searches for nefarious activities.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.