The Washington Post Editorial Page Strikes Again

by Henry Farrell on March 2, 2011

Michael Froomkin writes letters.

Just sent this to the Washington Post’s Ombudsman:

Today’s lead editorial on the Al-Kidd v. Ashcroft case blindly repeats a piece of government propaganda that has been decisively falsified in the court proceedings of that very case.

“High Court Should Overturn Kidd v. Ashcroft” begins like this:

ABDULLAH AL-KIDD was arrested at Dulles International Airport in 2003 after purchasing a one-way, first-class ticket to Saudi Arabia.

In fact, testimony and subpoenaed airline records establish that Al-Kidd had a round-trip coach ticket. The government’s false statement — originally made to the court to justify arresting him — misled the court and it is this very pattern of government misrepresentations that played a significant role in the judicial turn against immunity which the Post (in my opinion wrongly) critiques. The Post’s error is no mere detail but serves as means of obfuscating — avoiding — the central facts that undermine the argument the Post wishes to make.

I guess if you use fake facts it’s easier to write editorials in favor of unlimited and un-accountable state power to detain US citizens (AP: “Over the next 16 days he would be strip-searched repeatedly, left naked in a jail cell and shower for more than 90 minutes in view of other men and women, routinely transported in handcuffs and leg irons, and kept with people who had been convicted of violent crimes. On a long trip between jails, a federal marshal refused to unlock al-Kidd’s chains so he could use the bathroom.”).

No mere factual correction can fix this problem since that would fail to make clear that the factual change undercuts the entire logic of the editorial, but I have never yet seen a correction which makes such an admission, and don’t have much hope here.

The question for you, though, is this: how could the Post allow someone to write an editorial on such an important matter who isn’t even aware of one of the better-known facts of the case? And who doesn’t then check the facts. … the accurate facts were and are no secret: it almost takes work to avoid them.

I can’t say that this is particularly surprising. The editorial board of the _Washington Post_ is a disgrace. It’s the major reason I stopped my subscription some years ago, despite liking some people who write for the newspaper. When the senior editors of the newspaper repeatedly tell lies to their readers, some “obviously self-serving”:, others, like this, in pursuit of a sinister and insane national security agenda, it tends to corrode one’s trust in the institution.



Magnus Ramage 03.02.11 at 4:03 pm

There’s an interesting update on Michael Froomkin’s posting now, passing on an auto-reply to the effect that the Washington Post is currently without an ombudsman. Seems rather extraordinary.


JGabriel 03.02.11 at 4:29 pm

Henry @ Top:

When the senior editors of the newspaper repeatedly tell lies to their readers, some obviously self-serving, others, like this, in pursuit of a sinister and insane national security agenda, it tends to corrode one’s trust in the institution.

I used to think the increasing subtlety over time of propaganda in the media was a fact0r of developments and increasing research in psychology.

I guess I was wrong. The subtlety was just a response to evolving societal norms, which have clearly broken down, permitting an obviousness in lies and propaganda that has increased over the last decade – the last 2-3 years in particular – such that our major media outlets have become as obvious in their naked self-interest as the purveryors of the Gilded Age.



bianca steele 03.02.11 at 5:08 pm

Surely, it’s so inexplicable that a major newspaper could be wrong that emphasizing the issue amounts to asking readers to wonder whether, in some other (vaguely mysteruois) sense of the words, it is nevertheless true that the man only had a “one-way ticket”? Though who would this reinterpretation benefit–if he had a “ticket,” maybe he was only “strip-searched”?

Move along, nothing to see here.


novakant 03.02.11 at 7:37 pm

So the Post sucks, fair enough, but I wonder: is there anything about flying first-class, one way or not being an American citizen that would somehow make the treatment he received more justifiable?


P O'Neill 03.02.11 at 8:03 pm

Well, No, but the issue in the case isn’t whether it was “justifiable”, it’s whether his treatment was legally valid even under the post 9/11 laws that gave the government such latitude, although not enough in this case to stop them from deciding that they still had to make up their own facts to get him locked up i.e. the one-way ticket.


MPAVictoria 03.02.11 at 8:06 pm

bianca steele:
The words you use are English and I recognize what I think are sentences. Beyond that I am lost, though I am sure the fault is my own.


Keith 03.02.11 at 8:59 pm


The “one-way ticket” is a signifier of evil intent. Every law-abiding citizen knows that all one-way trips end in DOOM. One-way trips in first class? DOUBLE DOOM. Good citizens fly return trips, in coach.


rea 03.02.11 at 9:27 pm

one-way trips end in DOOM

Well, yeah, but the standard one-way trip to DOOM is from Saudi Arabia to the US, not the other way around.


maidhc 03.03.11 at 8:38 am

Hmm. The second-last time I flew, I flew one-way, and the last time I flew, I found myself on the Do Not Fly list. It took me 3 hours to get a boarding pass issued. Luckily my plane was 5 hours late.


bianca steele 03.03.11 at 2:39 pm

If you have to explain a joke, . . .


Andrew 03.06.11 at 10:55 pm

The Post has corrected the article.

And the editorial itself argues AGAINST the use of the material witness statute to engage in preventive detention. The point of the editorial is the more subtle one that Ashcroft should not be stripped of qualified immunity in al-Kidd’s lawsuit. That argument has very little to do with whether al-Kidd purchased a one-way or a round-trip ticket.

Ironically, Froomkin mischaracterizes the editorial in the same paragraphs he uses to criticize the Post’s carelessness with the facts.


Stag Party Palin 03.07.11 at 11:02 pm

Andrew: “That argument has very little to do with whether al-Kidd purchased a one-way or a round-trip ticket.”

I guess you never watched Perry Mason (it’s a joke, son). Influencing the argument with a non-sequitur dog-whistle is a time honored method of persuasion. It’s the inclusion of the one-way (fugitive) first class (rich bastard) canard that Froomkin (and I) think demonstrates the bad faith of the editorial. Then the question becomes, if they lie to you once (the canard) have they lied to you twice (the argument)?


Jeffrey Kramer 03.08.11 at 2:59 am

MPAVictoria, it’s all in the relative clauses.

“This editorial is so amazingly, inexplicably wrong, THAT
it leaves its readers [who are, presumably, desperate to believe that the editorialists are not simply telling ridiculous, flat-out lies] wondering WHETHER
they might be using some utterly bizarre definition of words.”

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