You may have seen a big headline in the news this week about a possible ISIS nuclear terror plot foiled, in part, by the FBI. (Here’s an example of the reporting on this story if you haven’t heard of this, but it’s really not worth your time to read it.) Basically, some gangsters in eastern Europe had access to some radioactive materials and were caught allegedly trying to sell it. But coincidentally, no one from ISIS was involved, the material allegedly being sold, cesium, isn’t what you make a nuclear bomb out of anyway (you need weapons-grade uranium or plutonium for that), and almost all of this actually happened several months ago. The story itself is not terribly important, the way it was ultimately reported is worth discussing.
Stories about terror plots should always be viewed with skepticism because virtually everyone involved has an incentive to exaggerate the threat. Let’s look at the big players:
- The FBI agents and the FBI organization look more important and heroic if the threat is more severe and legitimate.
- The media gets to tell a more compelling story with a scarier threat, and may even succeed in terrifying their audience sufficiently to get them to check back tomorrow for more updates. And,
- The US government more generally gets political cover because hyping a foreign threat helps people rally around their government and worry less about some of the unpleasantries involved in addressing that threat. See, we really do need to spy on everyone and bomb hospitals in the Middle East; just look how many people out there are trying to kill you! And no, no one is explicitly making that argument right now, but you get the idea.
As you can see, scary foreign threats are a good thing for every powerful interest. And this story in particular proved to be an excellent example of how a story can be exaggerated.
Adam Johnson, writing at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), has a great write-up on how a story about an FBI sting operation in eastern Europe was transformed into headlines that ISIS is trying to go nuclear. Here’s the link below: