Should The FBI Have Censored The Orlando Shooter’s Propaganda Call?
Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Sunday that the transcripts of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen’s calls with police during his rampage would be censored. Transcribed text of the calls would be released instead of the original audio, she said, and the release would not include Mateen’s apparent “pledge of allegiance” to the Islamic State. “We’re not going to… further proclaim this individual’s pledges of allegiance to terrorist groups, and further his propaganda,” Lynch said on Meet the Press.
Then, a day later, the FBI announced that they would release the initial 911 call without anything omitted. They also released a timeline of Mateen’s calls with police negotiators, in which he claimed there were explosives in cars around the nightclub — a claim that turned out to be untrue. Mateen demanded to police negotiators that the U.S. stop bombing Syria and Iraq.
The omitted portions of the initial transcript didn’t leave much to the imagination: Abu Barkr al-Baghdadi is the leader of ISIS — or was, if reports of his death by the Amaq news agency last week are to be believed. Below, I’ve filled in brackets with the new information released on Monday.
OD: Emergency 911, this is being recorded.
OM: In the name of God the Merciful, the beneficial [in Arabic]
OM: Praise be to God, and prayers as well as peace be upon the prophet of God [in Arabic]. I let you know, I’m in Orlando and I did the shootings.
OD: What’s your name?
OM: My name is I pledge of allegiance to [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State].
OD: Ok, What’s your name?
OM: I pledge allegiance to [Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] may God protect him [in Arabic], on behalf of [the Islamic State].
OD: Alright, where are you at?
OM: In Orlando.
OD: Where in Orlando?
[End of call.]
The FBI, when they released the bracketed information above, cited the “unnecessary distraction” created by the original omissions. In a joint statement, the Justice Department and the FBI said they had omitted information from the original transcripts to show sensitivity to the “interests of the surviving victims, their families, and the integrity of the ongoing investigation. We also did not want to provide the killer or terrorist organizations with a publicity platform for hateful propaganda.”
Right wing groups attacked Lynch at President Obama for censoring the pledge of allegiance to ISIS, saying that they were politicizing the release by removing evidence of “radical Islamic terrorism.” Mounting pressure from these groups could be why the redacted portions of the transcript were released, even though the content of the redactions was fairly well-known in the days immediately after the attack.
The act of pledging allegiance to ISIS is an important part of the message terror attacks like Mateen’s are meant to send. The day after the attack, the New York Times‘ Rukmini Callimachi wrote about what it meant that Mateen knew to state his motivation to police:
This public oath is about the only requirement that the Islamic State imposes on followers who wish to carry out acts of terror in its name. In an annual speech, the terror group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, last month incited its supporters to carry out killings abroad during the holy month of Ramadan.
No attack is too small, he advised, specifically naming the United States as a target. “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us,” he said, “and more effective and more damaging to them.”
An official ISIS publication quoted an anonymous “source” stating that Mateen was working on behalf of the organization, though there have been no concrete ties shown yet between Mateen and ISIS, aside from ISIS propaganda that Mateen may have consumed. It’s possible the publication, Amaq, was responding to the news that Mateen had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
As Brenan Koerner reported in WIRED after the San Bernardino shootings,
The most significant way in which the Islamic State has exhibited its media savviness has been through its embrace of openness. Unlike al Qaeda, which has generally been methodical about organizing and controlling its terror cells, the more opportunistic Islamic State is content to crowdsource its social media activity—and its violence—out to individuals with whom it has no concrete ties.
So were the Justice Department and the FBI justified in their desire to omit certain portions of the initial 911 call, in order to deprive Mateen and ISIS of the opportunity to provide a model for other would-be terrorists? Or should they have known that certain outlets and politicians — including Paul Ryan, who said Monday that editing the call transcript was “preposterous” — would interpret the move as a decision to minimize the “Islamic extremism” aspect of the attack?
From a counterterrorism standpoint, censoring the names makes sense: Why announce the information that Mateen wanted the world to know about his attack?
There is, on the other hand, a journalistic argument to be made that no information related to an attack of this scale — and frankly, political importance — should be withheld from the public.
But the real reason the full transcript was released is probably a bit more cynical: Conservative outlets accused the Obama administration of sterilizing the truth. The Obama administration wanted to avoid yet another conspiracy-laden scandal, and so they nipped the story in the bud by telling people what they already knew — inadvertently broadcasting the terrorists’ message in the process.
Photo: U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch testifies before a House Appropriations subcommittee on the Justice’s Department budget in Washington February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron