ABC’s Inaccurate Gitmo-Abdulmutallab Story Got Major Pickup

December 31, 2009 8:16 a.m.

Just how far can one erroneous terrorism story travel?

By our very partial count, a since-corrected ABC report on the supposed role of ex-Gitmo detainees in planning the Detroit Christmas Day attack was picked up by at least 12 media outlets, and was cited by two members of Congress and legion right-wing bloggers.

Here’s how the Dec. 28 story, which we’ve saved in its original form here, began:

Two al Qaeda Leaders Behind Northwest Flight 253 Terror Plot Were Released by U.S.

Two of the four leaders allegedly behind the al Qaeda plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit were released by the U.S. from the Guantanamo prison in November, 2007, according to American officials and Department of Defense documents.

American officials agreed to send the two terrorists to Saudi Arabia where they entered into an “art therapy rehabilitation program” and were set free, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.

The only problem? As documented by Gawker, one of those two leaders — IDed in the story as “Guantanamo prisoner #333, Muhamad Attik al-Harbi” — had reportedly surrendered himself in February and ended up in the hands of Saudi authorities. This fact — reported at the time by the AP — means that, as ABC’s correction noted last night, he “therefore could not have played a direct role in organizing the attempt to bring down Northwest flight 253.”

Here’s a clip of the original ABC report, followed by a brief on-air correction last night:

Particularly coming on the night before a holiday, though, this correction will be seen by just a small fraction of the people who were misinformed by the original report.

By our count via Nexis, the following outlets picked up ABC’s startling story: Politico (in a feature story), United Press International, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, CNN’s American Morning, the Daily Beast, Agence France Presse, The Sun in London, Investor’s Business Daily, the Deseret Morning News in Utah, the Miami Herald, the BBC, and, naturally, the New York Post (“EX-GITMO GOONS DID IT! FREED QAEDA CREEPS HATCHED UNDIE-COVER PLAN TO BLOW UP CHRISTMAS JET”).

That list misses a lot of TV mentions that don’t make it to the Nexis database. There was also an angry letter on the matter from Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) to President Obama, a statement from Homeland Security Committee member Rep. Eric Massa (D-NY), and a call to arms in Human Events by Newt Gingrich. And that’s not to mention the links on the right wing blogs. (The Weekly Standard‘s Thomas Joscelyn deserves credit for giving the ABC story a skeptical read.)

To be perfectly clear, if ABC’s new version of the report is accurate, that one of the four leaders who planned the attack was a former Gitmo detainee, that’s a big story. But we haven’t seen solid reporting elsewhere on who specifically planned the attack.

It has been widely reported that suspect Umar Abdulmutallab traveled to Yemen and met with what’s being described as an Al Qaeda affiliate. And in a statement on the Internet, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attempted attack.

We’ve seen this pattern of an erroneous report making the rounds and turning out to be false. ABC also had to correct its report that alleged Fort Hood shooter Major Hasan attempted to make contact with “people associated with Al Qaeda.”

Before that, a New York Times front-pager on a startlingly high rate of “recidivism” among Gitmo detainees also got big pickup, before the story was revealed to be deeply flawed, leading to a lengthy correction.

All journalists make mistakes, so what’s a reader to do? Be skeptical of initial reports, particularly on intelligence stories, and keep a close eye on sourcing. And always keep in mind the record of the reporter who authored the story.

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