Thursday, June 27, 2013

MEMO TO MEDIA: Stop Defending Radical Anti-American Jihadist Anwar Al-Awlaki

Anwar Al-Awlaki
Shortly after the story broke that Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam who was killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2011, influenced the surviving Boston bomber suspect, the misinformation about Awlaki began to spread once again. Some reporters are even trying to rewrite the history of Awlaki, who at the time of his death was the most dangerous and influential radical Islamic jihadist in the world and linked to such terrorist plots as the Fort Hood massacre, the Christmas Day bomb plot and the failed Times Square attack.

The latest example of a journalist getting it all wrong is Nation correspondent and author Jeremy Scahill, who while touting his controversial new book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield has repeatedly offered up a wrong-minded and inaccurate analysis of Awlaki. In just the last few weeks, Scahill has told PBS's Charlie Rose, The Tonight Show's Jay Leno, and MSNBC's Alex Wagner that Awlaki was not always anti-American but was "radicalized by U.S. policies" after he left the country.

Not true.


Efforts by Scahill and other liberal and libertarian journalists to condemn Awlaki's killing by the Obama administration and downplay Awlaki's profound worldwide influence and connection to Al Qaeda are misguided at best. 
Are there legitimate concerns about government overreach in this administration? Yes. But Awlaki's killing was justified.

I've covered the Awlaki saga for more than a decade for Newsweek and other publications, and have frequently visited the mosque he once headed near San Diego. I learned a decade ago that, while Awlaki publicly condemned 9/11, he was a behind-closed-doors adviser to two of the eventual hijackers who lived in San Diego. 

Awlaki held private meetings with Al Qaeda plotters Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar on Friday evenings after prayer services in a conference room at the Arribat Al-Islami Mosque near San Diego. The nature of those meetings will likely never be known. But the terrorists followed Awlaki to the East Coast when he left the San Diego area. The rest, of course, is history.


Shortly after 9/11, the FBI met with Awlaki several times during which he lied to the bureau about not recognizing one of the San Diego-based 9/11 hijackers. But to get to the truth, all the FBI had to do was visit some of the worshippers at the San Diego area mosque - or just knock on a few doors in that mosque's neighborhood, where several residents recognized the hijackers from their pictures in the newspaper.


The neighbors, none of whom had been contacted by law enforcement when I interviewed them ten years ago, told me they’d seen the hijackers with Awlaki on several occasions at the mosque. I have no reason to believe that any of these neighbors were anything but credible. 


In 2003, one neighbor, Lincoln Higgie, an antiques dealer who lived right across the street from the mosque and had a friendly relationship with Awlaki, told me that Awlaki returned to the mosque just a month before 9/11 and told Higgie that "something very big was going to happen, and that he had to be out of the country when it happened. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but now every time I think about that comment it gives me chills."


There's more. Three years ago, the Investigative Project on Terrorism, a nonprofit research group that is recognized as a comprehensive data center on radical Islamic terrorist groups, obtained several collections of Awlaki lectures on nearly 60 CDs at a bookstore/market in suburban Virginia. The CDs, which were recorded in the late 1990's when he was heading the San Diego area mosque, are filled with speeches with radical themes. 


Awlaki was already under suspicion in the late 1990's for helping run a San Diego-based Muslim charity, the Charitable Society for Social Welfare, considered to be a front organization to funnel money to terrorists. Awlaki was also investigated for supporting the Palestinian terror organization Hamas, for possible direct links to Al Qaeda, and for a visit paid to him by a close associate of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.


A Joint Terrorism Task Force in San Diego wanted to bring in Awlaki, and a judge in Denver signed off on an arrest warrant on the grounds of passport fraud, but inexplicably the felony arrest warrant was rescinded by the Denver U.S. Attorney's Office in 2002. The next day, Awlaki, who was on a terror watch list, returned to the United States from a visit to Yemen and was apprehended as a terror suspect at the JFK airport in New York. He was questioned but released because there was no open warrant allowing security personnel to arrest him.


Scahill ignores all of these facts and seems unmoved that Awlaki clearly had his hand in a number of terrorist acts. From December 2008 to June 2009, at least 18 e-mails passed between Awlaki and Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspect in the November 2009 killing of 13 at Fort Hood, Texas. 


After that horrific killing spree, Awlaki said of Hasan, “What he did was heroic and great... I ask every Muslim serving in the U.S. Army to follow suit.”


Failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad reportedly told law enforcement officials that he was a “fan and a follower” of Awlaki, as is the Christmas Day “underpants bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who claimed the airliner attack over Detroit on behalf of the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.


I lost no sleep when I heard Awlaki had been killed by a drone strike. There was a mountain of evidence that he was linked to a number of terrorists worldwide. Was he deserving of a trial? No. Is it realistic to suggest that we could have ever taken him into custody alive in Yemen? No.


While the lesser known killing of Awlaki's 16-year-old son by another U.S. drone strike is troubling and should be investigated, and while we must as a nation do all we can to minimize civilian casualties in drone strikes, the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki was the right thing to do. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Air Shows Should Be Stopped!


I'm growing tired of reading about fatal crashes at air shows. There was yet another one on Saturday in Dayton, Ohio, where officials say a pilot and wing walker died in a fiery crash at the Vectren Dayton Air Show. A disturbing video posted on the Dayton Daily News website shows the wing walker hanging upside down from a wing as the plane tilts, then slams into the ground and explodes as spectators, including many children, scream in horror. Thankfully, no spectators were hurt. But this crash is just another in an endless parade of horrific incidents at these wildly popular events. Begging the question: when is enough really enough? I say air shows should be stopped, once and for all. 

I may seem like an unlikely person to be calling for an end to air shows. I've been covering the military for 25 years, and I’m a bit of a military airplane nut. I have been since I was a kid who loved movies such as “Twelve O’Clock High" and “The Blue Max.” I love to check out the latest fight jets as well as the vintage aircraft dating back to World War I. 


But I no longer believe air shows are a good idea. The tragedy in Ohio was horrific. And there have been so many others, including another near tragedy just yesterday when John Klatt was forced to land his MX Aircraft MXS after he experienced an engine failure at the Quad City Air Show at the Davenport Municipal Airport in Davenport, Iowa. Klatt was very lucky to walk away in one piece.


The worst air show disaster in recent memory happened a year and 1/2 ago when, according to NBC News, a North American P-51D Mustang flown by James K. "Jimmy" Leeward crashed into spectators at the Reno Air Races in Reno, Nevada, killing the pilot and 10 people on the ground, and injuring 69 others including small children. 


In San Diego, my hometown, the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar Air Show is a hugely popular event each year. I live on the southern edge of the Marine base and can hear the action - and even see some of it - from my office window. It’s exhilarating to say the least. Sometimes the airplanes are so close it feels like they’re landing on our roof. 


The Miramar folks insist their air show has a spotless safety record. But that is not true. Disaster was narrowly averted three years ago when a Marine C-130 cargo plane that was part of the air show dropped a 75-foot refueling hose and its receiving arm on a home in Carmel Mountain. No one was injured, and the house didn’t burn down, but the hose did cause about $10,000 damage, and surrounding residents were traumatized.

What perhaps fewer folks remember is that at the 2004 air show here, stunt pilot Sean DeRosier was tragically killed when his “Cabo Wabo SkyRocker” failed to pull out of a dive.


We hear jet noise from Miramar almost every night, and sometimes it’s deafening, but we don’t complain because we love the military in this household. But living this close to a military air  field can be hazardous A few years ago, a San Diego man lost his entire family – his wife, two young daughters and mother-in-law – when an F/18 crashed into their home as the jet approached Miramar. 


Why increase the risk with unnecessary air shows? Granted, they  are an effective recruiting tool for the military, they have a positive impact on local economies, they’re an exciting and educational show for the whole family, and they certainly make you proud to be an American and proud that we have such a strong and capable military, especially in this volatile post-9/11 world. But these aircraft are built to make us safer, not put us in more danger.

I recognize that both sides of this debate have merit. But ultimately this argument comes down to risk vs. reward, and in my opinion the risk is far greater than the reward.


As I’ve said before, putting these aircraft on display as if they’re part of some Vaudeville act is like putting a killer whale in a fish tank then acting surprised when someone is harmed trying to teach the whale to look cute and jump through a hoop in front of thousands of screaming admirers.


Sorry to put a damper on what are very popular events for aviation lovers. But let's enjoy these remarkable high-performance machines from a safer distance and respect and support the brilliant and brave men and women who build and fly them.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Terrorism and the NSA: What We Really Have Here Is Failure to Communicate

Terrorists attack on September 11, 2001
Conspicuously missing from the current debate over the National Security Agency's role in protecting us from terrorist attacks is the fact that, if federal law enforcement officials would do their job, we wouldn't need so much NSA surveillance. That point was inadvertently made on Sunday when former Vice President Dick Cheney said on Fox News Sunday that if the NSA's surveillance of phone records and emails had been in place before the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the terrorists' plot might have been foiled.

"If we had had this before 9/11, when there were two terrorists in San Diego — two hijackers — had been able to use that program, that capability, against that target, we might well have been able to prevent 9/11," Cheney said. 

FBI Director Robert Mueller recently made the same claim, telling a Senate committee that had the NSA program existed a decade ago they might have been able to track a call made by one of the eventual  9/11 hijackers in San Diego, Khalid al-Mihdhar, to an identified Al Qaeda safe house in Yemen.

“If we had the telephone number from Yemen, we would have matched it up to that telephone number in San Diego, got further legal process, and identified al-Mihdhar,” Mueller said. 

Really? Apparently Cheney and Mueller have both forgotten that the CIA actually identified al-Mihdhar and his terrorist cohort Nawaf al-Hazmi before 9/11 and knew they had connections to Al Qaeda and had passports to travel here. As I reported nearly a decade ago, before arriving in San Diego, al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were known by intelligence officials as Al Qaeda operatives who had attended a terror summit in Malaysia just before coming to the United States. 

But the CIA inexplicably didn't share this information with the FBI or any other federal agencies. It was a breakdown by the intelligence community. Had they shared this information, the terrorists would have been found and 9/11 could indeed have been prevented. 

This wasn't the only intelligence blunder related to 9/11. The FBI also didn't do nearly enough after the fact to get to the bottom of the San Diego terror cell. We still do not know the whole story of 9/11. We still do not have a clear understanding of how deep the ties were between the Saudi government and the hijackers, or just who were the mysterious, moneyed Saudis who set up the terrorists in San Diego. Perhaps we never will.

Picked by 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed to be among the first of the 19 hijackers to enter the U.S., al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, whose name, address and home phone number appeared in the 2000-01 San Diego phone book, entered the country in early 2000 through Los Angeles International Airport and were brought to San Diego by an enigmatic Saudi national named Omar al-Bayoumi, who'd worked for the Saudi government in civil aviation (a part of the Saudi defense department).

Al-Bayoumi set the two terrorists up in an apartment near the San Diego Islamic Center and paid $1,500 to cover their first two months of rent. When asked after the attack in 2001 about al-Bayoumi's possible role in 9/11, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, who was then the local head of the FBI, told me that the local investigation had found no evidence that al-Bayoumi was involved in the attack.

However, a former top FBI official later told Newsweek, "We firmly believed that (al-Bayoumi) had knowledge (of the 9/11 plot)."

After 9/11, al-Bayoumi was detained by New Scotland Yard while living in the U.K., but was released a week later and allowed to return to Saudi Arabia. Gore said the FBI sent agents to London to interview him.

Al-Midhar and al-Hazmi also met regularly at another San Diego area mosque with Anwar al-Awlaki, an imam at the time who would later become one of the world's most notorious anti-American jihadists. Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

The two eventual terrorists even lived in the house of a known San Diego FBI informant, Abdousattar Shaikh. Finding these two would not have required any sort of secret NSA surveillance program. The Feds simply didn't do their job. 

I interviewed at least a half dozen people in San Diego a decade ago who had direct links with the terrorists and with al-Bayoumi and other mysterious Saudis who were linked to the hijackers. Not one of them had ever been contacted by the FBI.

And things have evidently not gotten any better. Federal law enforcement was unable to thwart the Boston Marathon bombers - and NSA surveillance again would not have been required to find and follow them. These two alleged terrorists were all over YouTube and various radical websites, and the Russians had warned our intelligence about them. Some things sadly never change.



Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans Still Not Seeking Help for PTSD

Will Terry, an Air Force veteran who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, lost almost everything because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After he came home, Terry couldn’t sit near a window or be near loud traffic. "Towards the end of my four-year downward spiral," he says, "my fiance' left with my son three months after he was born. I missed my son's first smile, first word, and first of many things in the first year of his life. When my ex returned months later, I went to pick up my son and he screamed and cried as if he didn't know me. It broke me even more."

Thankfully, Terry finally decided to get help in 2007. He now enjoys an active life that includes leadership roles and involvement in veterans’ activities. He recently graduated from college. “I want people to know that they don’t have to suffer from PTSD," says Terry. "There is treatment out there and they can live a better life once they access it. The problem is, not enough veterans seek help."

As I recently reported in The Daily Beast, approximately 30 percent of post-9/11 veterans like Terry have PTSD, whose symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, hypersensitivity, anger, sleeplessness and depression. But according to the RAND Corporation, more than two-thirds of these veterans never seek treatment. Fear of reliving the event(s), worry about appearing weak or vulnerable, and concern for jeopardizing their careers both in and out of the military are just some of the reasons service members hesitate to seek help.

While the stigma associated with PTSD is thankfully beginning to fade, it's not happening quickly enough. Awareness is the key. June is PTSD Awareness Month. In observance of this public health campaign, Military Pathways is offering service members, veterans and their families the opportunity to take a free, anonymous online self-assessment for PTSD or other related condition at www.MindBodyStrength.org

While the assessment does not provide a definitive diagnosis, it will provide information on how to seek help if someone is experiencing PTSD symptoms.

The self-assessment asks users to answer a set of four questions and provide some basic demographic information. After completing the assessment, respondents receive feedback as to whether their symptoms are consistent with symptoms of PTSD, as well as a list of resources for how and where to get further evaluation and help. Visitors to the site can also access a host of articles, videos and other helpful information.

As noted by Bergmann & Moore, a law firm that exclusively represents veterans with disability claims, PTSD didn’t become an official psychiatric diagnosis until 1980, but reports of battle-related stress reactions are as old war itself. There are a variety of pre-PTSD terms that all mean the same thing - everything from shell shock to battle fatigue to traumatic war neurosis.

The PTSD self-assessment tool offered by Military Pathway, which is provided by the nonprofit organization Screening for Mental Health, Inc. and funded by the Department of Defense with support from the National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2health.org), is quick and confidential. It can change and even literally save the life of a veteran. A self-assessment is the first step toward healing. PTSD is treatable, and beatable.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Sad Death of One of America's Last Real Investigative Reporters

The news of Michael Hastings' death comes as a total shock. Michael, 33, who was killed early Tuesday in a car crash in Los Angeles, was among the last of a disappearing breed of fearless investigative reporters. A friend and former colleague, he and I worked together often when we were fellow writers at Newsweek.

I'll never forget our marathon phone conversations about journalism, politics, war, civilian casualties and General David Patraeus. Michael was probably the general's most outspoken critic, as you can see in this article he wrote for Rolling Stone. Michael ripped the general in that story, and in others. I haven't exactly gone easy on Patraeus, either, but I've typically left it to my sources to evaluate him in stories such as this one for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Michael had no time for that. It just wasn't his style. He called it the way he saw it, and I admired him for it. 


Sadly, there aren't many journalists out there who are still willing, or able, to tell it like it is. Sure, there are plenty of ranting bloggers, but trained, reputable journalists who have both the skills and courage Michael had are a disappearing breed, thanks in large part to the corporatization and conglomeratization of the news industry.

Michael became a media star when his infamous "Runaway General" piece in Rolling Stone brought down Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. After that, the gloves came off. Michael morphed into something almost larger than life. He was clearly no longer interested in winning friends and influencing people. He instead began a fierce campaign to tell the truth about Iraq and Afghanistan, and more. 


A reliably controversial guest on the cable news shows, Michael often verbally chastised powerful officials and even his fellow members of the national media. He was quite good at rubbing people the wrong way (check out this incendiary showdown with CNN's Piers Morgan). But Michael was simply speaking truth to power. And for the record, the Michael Hastings the public didn't see was a kind, caring person who really did love his country and who, like me, had great respect for our warriors and veterans, if not the ones who killed civilians.



Part idealist, part cynic, Michael was a Hemingwayesque figure. A young man who was trying to make some sense of all the horrors he'd seen, Michael lost his girlfriend, Andi Parhamovich, while covering the war in Iraq for Newsweek in 2005. He went on to write a poignant book about the tragedy, I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story, which is both love story and chronicle of the human cost of war.

In this age of amateurish, clueless bloggers and shrinkage of traditional media outlets, there aren't many real investigative reporters still around. Michael was a member of that  diminishing club. He truly loved his work. I think the advice he recently gave to a group of aspiring journalists really shows what made him tick. "Mainly you really have to love writing and reporting," he wrote. "Like it's more important to you than anything else in your life--family, friends, social life, whatever." 


Michael, who's survived by his wife, the writer Elise Jordan, lived an examined life. His writing really mattered. He will be greatly missed.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Singing Star Katharine McPhee Lends Her Talents to Salk Institute's Groundbreaking Cancer Research


Singing superstar Katharine McPhee
In the fifth season of American Idol, Katharine McPhee knocked it out of the park with her incredibly powerful but tender voice, stunning beauty, and genuine warmth. She was an instant superstar. But even more impressive than McPhee's talent is her tireless work as a philanthropist. She's supported St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Feeding America and is the celebrity ambassador for Malaria No More

This summer she turns her attention to The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the world renowned research institution in San Diego that has made so many groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of cancer, as well as Alzheimer's, diabetes, infectious diseases, and more.

On Aug. 24 McPhee, who in addition to her thriving music career is also a popular actress, headlines the 18th annual "Symphony at Salk - a Concert Under the Stars," where she'll perform with the San Diego Symphony and acclaimed guest conductor Maestro Thomas Wilkins.

Funds raised from this event directly support the Institute's scientific research and award-winning community education programs. I've long been an ardent supporter of Salk, which was founded more than 50 years ago by legendary polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk. Scientists are living up to the institute's namesake with their studies of neuroscience, genetics, cell and plant biology, and related disciplines. 

Salk research has helped us better understand cancer and a variety of other diseases. Faculty achievements have been recognized with numerous honors, including Nobel Prizes and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences.


McPhee and the Salk Institute are a nice fit. They're both class acts, and both are trying to make a positive difference in the world. Tickets for Symphony at Salk go on sale July 8 for $250 and can be purchased on the Symphony at Salk website or by calling 858-597-0657. Sponsorship packages range from $2,500 to $75,000. 

For additional ticket or sponsorship information, please visit the website at www.salk.edu/symphony or e-mail: symphony@salk.edu. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Mark Harmon, TV's Most Popular Actor, Calls for Less Toxic, More Effective Cancer Treatments

Actor Mark Harmon
Ever since he appeared on the acclaimed 1980's hospital drama “St. Elsewhere,” Mark Harmon has been among my favorite actors. Harmon, who for the last decade has starred on "NCIS," the highest rated show on television, brings integrity and a quiet strength to every film and TV role. My favorite Harmon performance was in an obscure 1988 movie called “Stealing Home,” a poignant, unapologetically sentimental film about baseball, love, loss, and redemption. Cynics dismissed the movie, but I loved it. Harmon is outstanding as Billy Wyatt, an aimless, washed up thirtysomething baseball player who squanders a real shot with the Philadelphia Phillies and is called home when he gets some tragic news about a beloved childhood friend.

In addition to being an accomplished yet still underrated actor, Harmon, who played quarterback at UCLA and has been married to actress Pam Dawber of “Mork and Mindy” for 26 years, is also a champion for cancer patients. He appears in a new public service announcement whose goal is to increase awareness of cancer immunotherapy, which mobilizes one's own immune system to fight cancer. As some of you may know, I am alive today because of an immunotherapy - a radio-immunotherapy clinical trial, to be precise. 

Harmon's new PSA, from Stand Up to Cancer and the Cancer Research Institute, debuts today. Harmon says he appears on behalf of friends who have battled cancer. 

"Cancer research is extremely important to me," he said in a statement. "I don't know anyone who hasn't been affected by cancer in some way or another. I'm here ... to highlight the unbelievable work that CRI and SU2C are doing to advance the field of cancer immunology."

It's really important to get high-profile stars like Harmon behind this research. It obviously helps increase awareness, and that can only lead to good things. One of the most attractive things about immunotherapy treatments, which train the immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells, is that they are typically less toxic than traditional chemotherapy drugs, which kill healthy cells along with the cancer cells. That means potentially fewer side effects and a much easier treatment experience for the patient. 

Two new studies presented last month at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) conference involving immunotherapy showed what society President Dr. Sandra Swain called "significant progress."

In December, SU2C and the Cancer Research Institute announced the formation of a so-called Cancer Immunology Translational Research Dream Team to study the relationship between cancer and the immune system. The three-year, $10 million study will allow scientists from eight reputable research institutions to delve into this relatively new field.

"The research that CRI and SU2C are doing shows us that with the help of immunotherapy, our bodies' own natural defenses can fight cancer," Harmon said. "We've all seen people suffer through different kinds of treatments for this disease, but these advances in immunotherapy have the potential to significantly change cancer treatment as we know it. It's important for people to learn about these discoveries."

Well said, Mark.