(Not Exactly a) Whopper of the Week: Larry C. Johnson

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Sept. 21 2001 6:56 PM

(Not Exactly a) Whopper of the Week: Larry C. Johnson

"Judging from news reports and the portrayal of villains in our popular entertainment, Americans are bedeviled by fantasies about terrorism. They seem to believe that terrorism is the greatest threat to the United States and that it is becoming more widespread and lethal. They are likely to think that the United States is the most popular target of terrorists. And they almost certainly have the impression that extremist Islamic groups cause most terrorism.

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"None of these beliefs are based in fact. ... While terrorism is not vanquished, in a world where thousands of nuclear warheads are still aimed across the continents, terrorism is not the biggest security challenge confronting the United States, and it should not be portrayed that way."

--Larry C. Johnson, "The Declining Terrorist Threat," New York Times, July 10, 2001. Johnson, a former CIA officer, was deputy director of the U.S. State Department's Office of Counterterrorism from 1989 to 1993. A more detailed version of this argument appears here.

"On television, you can see that the twin towers were destroyed; up close, you can see they were pulverized. ... [T]he number of people believed to be missing in the attack on the World Trade Center was revised from 5,422 to 6,333."

--Michael Grunwald, "Up Close At Ground Zero, Desolation and Dust," Washington Post, Sept. 21.

Commentary: It is, to be sure, a little bit cheap (and slightly at odds with the usual parameters of this feature) to criticize someone for making an erroneous prediction, particularly after a tragedy. Chatterbox is especially reluctant to tag Johnson because Johnson's op-ed was argued forcefully, backed up meticulously with factual data, and bravely at odds with conventional wisdom at the time of its publication. Add in that Johnson now makes his living as a consultant to corporations about terrorism, and therefore had everything to gain by exaggerating the dangers terrorism poses, and the guy practically looks like a hero. Chatterbox, who two decades ago was an editor for the New York Times op-ed page, would have published Johnson's piece had he still been an editor there this past July. In his capacity at Slate, Chatterbox might well have written up Johnson's prediction, and perhaps even endorsed it.

But boy, is he glad he didn't! Johnson's analysis, we now see, was bold, persuasive, and 100 percent wrong. Sadly, a mistake this embarrassing cannot be ignored. As a fellow skeptic, Chatterbox in all sincerity wishes Johnson better luck next time.

Got a whopper? Send it to chatterbox@slate.com. To be considered, an entry must be an unambiguously false statement paired with an unambiguous refutation, and both must be derived from some appropriately reliable public source. Preference will be given to newspapers and other documents that Chatterbox can link to online.

Whopper Archive:

Sept. 13, 2001: Yasser Arafat

Sept. 7, 2001: Tommy Thompson

Aug. 30, 2001: HHS spokesman Bill Pierce

Aug. 23, 2001: Variety Editor Peter Bart

Aug. 17, 2001: Tom Daschle

Aug 10, 2001: Robert Mueller

Aug. 3, 2001: Barbara Olson

July 27, 2001: Jeffrey Archer

July 20, 2001: George W. Bush

July 13, 2001: George W. Bush

July 6, 2001: Sumner Redstone

June 29, 2001: David Brock

June 22, 2001: Edmund Morris

June 15, 2001: George W. Bush

June 8, 2001: Nepali Prince Regent (subsequently, King) Gyanendra

June 1, 2001: Mary McGrory

May 25, 2001: Ari Fleischer

May 18, 2001: York, Pa., Mayor Charles Robertson

May 11, 2001: Ted Olson

May 4, 2001: Rear Admiral Craig Quigley

April 27, 2001: Ben Affleck

April 20, 2001: South Carolina state legislator Chip Limehouse

April 13, 2001: Gray Davis

April 6, 2001: Sumner Redstone

March 30, 2001: Spencer Abraham

March 23, 2001: George W. Bush, Rep. Jennifer Dunn, and/or the Treasury Department

March 16, 2001: George W. Bush

March 9, 2001: Russ Freyman, spokesman, National Association of Manufacturers

March 2, 2001: Paul O'Neill

Feb. 23, 2001: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton

Feb. 16, 2001: Oscar spokesman John Pavlik

Feb. 9, 2001: Lynne Cheney

Feb. 2, 2001: Bobby Thomson

Jan. 26, 2001: Denise Rich

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