Saturday, February 18, 2017

Mystery Surrounds Guantánamo Detainee's "Suicide"

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By Jeffrey S. Kaye

In January 2002 the US government started incarcerating "war on terror" prisoners at specially built facilities at the Naval base at Guantánamo Bay. On January 25, 2017, a draft executive order by Trump proposed reversing President Obama's January 2009 executive order to close the Guantánamo detention site.
The Cuba-sited camp was chosen precisely to keep operations there as secret and unaccountable as possible. What happens inside the facility is carefully hidden from public view, and this is especially true when prisoners have died.
Officially, the fifth person to die at Guantánamo was a Yemeni prisoner, Mohammad Saleh Al Hanashi. Authorities ruled his death a suicide, but government documents from the investigation into his June 2009 death, released in May 2015, reveal serious tampering with documentary evidence at the scene, calling into question the legitimacy of the investigation into how he died.
Furthermore, similar tampering seems to have occurred in relation to other detainee deaths. This article will, for the most part, concentrate on the investigation into Al Hanashi's death, following earlier reporting on his case at Truthout.
Files "Missing and Unrecoverable"
According to a partial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) release from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, into their investigation into the June 1, 2009, death of Al Hanashi at Guantánamo, key evidence from a computer detainee tracking and database system was ordered suppressed in the very first minutes after his body was discovered.
Numerous documents in the FOIA release relate how in the first minutes after Al Hanashi's body was discovered, an unidentified NCIS agent told Guantánamo staff to turn off the computer database, known as the Detainee Information Management System (DIMS), which monitors all interactions with detainees by camp staff. The question of who ordered this became the object of an internal NCIS investigation that has never been revealed in the press until now.
As NCIS agents discovered that the order came from someone within NCIS itself, an internal investigation was begun to discover why this violation of standard operating procedure took place. No final conclusion concerning this investigation was part of the FOIA release, and while NCIS's FOIA office told this author all materials were in fact released, the NCIS Public Affairs office failed to return multiple requests for further comment about the shutdown of DIMS.
Further irregularities, amounting to evidence of a possible cover-up surrounding Al Hanashi's death, appear to have taken place later in relation to the computer database files from Guantánamo's Behavioral Health Unit, where Al Hanashi was incarcerated at the time of his death. Nearly eight months after a FOIA request was filed on the investigation into his death, a July 23, 2012, NCIS memo titled "Missing Material from Dossier" found, "[a]fter an exhaustive search of all sources," that all the DIMS logs from the Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) for the day of and the day after Al Hanashi's death were "missing and unrecoverable." (See Part One, page 5, in documents on this linked page.)
Some idea of what was deleted surfaced in another NCIS investigation report from January 2010 -- written before all the DIMS records for the day of Al Hanashi's death and the day after went missing. In this report, the investigating agent noted that the final entry from the DIMS record on the evening Al Hanashi died was "Received medication" (apparently for sleep). The time was 2118, or 9:18 pm. After that, the DIMS record went silent.
The fact that official notification of the missing computer database logs at Guantánamo came only after a FOIA request was filed with NCIS into its investigation of Al Hanashi's death seems, at least on the surface, suspicious. It suggests that evidence was possibly destroyed after the fact, once deeper journalistic interest in the case was shown.
The missing logs may have included the identity of the person who ordered the DIMS entries turned off, but short of a full-scale investigation with subpoena powers, we will likely never know who that was now.
The NCIS FOIA materials, which are at times heavily censored, discuss other irregularities with the investigation, including the failure to properly maintain the security of evidence central to a verdict of suicide, which was sent by US mail for laboratory analysis.
A Pattern of Suppressing Evidence?
A failure to document key entries into the DIMS computer database during the crucial period surrounding a detainee's death also occurred during the hours surrounding the September 2012 death of another detainee, Adnan Farhan Abd Al Latif, who, like Al Hanashi, also died in the BHU at Guantánamo. A special Army investigation, called an AR 15-6 report, cited the failure to make entries into the DIMS record at the time of Latif's death as a violation of camp standard operating procedures.
The Army report said, " ... the lack of entries did make it difficult after the fact to re-create the immediate events leading up to the point that the guards found [Latif] unresponsive."
Was there a pattern to suppress information from Guantánamo's computer surveillance and database system in instances of detainees' deaths?
DIMS is a facility-wide computer logging system used by guards and other Guantánamo personnel to keep copious and detailed notes on every prisoner at the Cuba-based facility. Turning off DIMS entries was a serious violation of Guantánamo procedures. The 2004 Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) manual, released by Wikileaks, has detailed instructions for what should be recorded on DIMS.
Guantánamo authorities watched over detainee behavior very closely. Literally anything of interest was supposed to be recorded in DIMS. The SOP states, "There is always significant activity occurring on a block. There should be no DIMS SIGACT [significant activities] sheet filled out with 'Nothing to report.'"
The manual notes, "How the detainee reacted, observation by other detainees, and other potentially relevant observations will be annotated in DIMS."
"Relevant observations" of detainee behavior to be recorded include requests for copies of the Koran; refusals to let their cell be searched; refusal of a meal; visits by non-block personnel; and anything deemed a "significant activity."
A list of "significant activities" include banging on the cell, "showing reverence to another detainee," displays of "extreme emotion," requesting an interpreter, and harming oneself, among others. The SOP notes, "All data entries via DIMS must be specific and complete."
The system goes back to the early years of the Guantánamo prison. According to a February 17, 2005, statement by then-commander of Joint Task Force Guantánamo, Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, the DIMS system "allows us to keep track of nearly every aspect of a detainee's daily life."
The Army report on Latif's death explained, "DIMS is the primary tool used to track day-to-day information about detainees, and is made up of electronic entries regarding each detainee." Army investigators looking into the Latif case relied on the veracity of DIMS entries as more reliable than eyewitness memories.
Army investigators had much the same to say regarding the DIMS system in an AR 15-6 report on possible Camp Delta SOP violations in the wake of the three Guantánamo "suicides" in 2006.
In late August 2006, the Army's AR 15-6 report was completed. Its section on DIMS was as follows:
The Detainee Information Management System (DIMS) is the primary system for Camp Delta guards to record everything related to detainee and events that occur in the blocks, as well as the primary system employed by the JDG staff in performance of staff duties....
At the cell block level, guards enter log entries into DIMS at the beginning of each shift, and throughout the shift. These entries are reviewed by Platoon Leaders, Sergeants of the Guard, Block NCOs, and sometimes the FGIW officer, before and during the watch. Because DIMS entries are mandatory, continually updated, and thorough, they provide a significant source of information to the events that occurred on 9 June 2006. (See pages SJA 37-39, and SJA 83 in the Army report.)
In a June 22, 2006, NCIS Investigative Action report on the detainee deaths earlier that month -- a "Review of Standard Operation Procedures for Camp Delta, JTF-GTMO" -- the NCIS reporting agent explained that DIMS was "used to annotate everything related to a Detainee.... Items to be recorded in DIMS are 'Meal refusals, conversations, behavioral problems, leadership, prayer leadership, teaching, preaching, rule breaking, coordination with other detainees, movements, requests, everything.'" (See page SJA 237 of Army report.)
The computer database also contained important documents by the guard force (the Joint Detention Group), including a "Daily Block NCO checklist, Random Headcount reports, and Significant Activity Sheets."
Falsified Computer Data in Earlier "Suicide" Cases
The old computer-related adage -- "garbage in, garbage out" -- is worth considering as well when it comes to DIMS entries. So, for instance, and crucially, according to the Army AR 15-6 report on the 2006 "suicides," investigators found that the 2350 (or 11:50 pm) random headcount of detainees the night of the 2006 "suicides" had been "falsely reported" by "an unknown member of the Alpha Block guard team." Such headcounts, recorded in DIMS, "required immediate visual confirmation of detainee [two or three words redacted] in each cell."
According to the Army's investigation, "no guard remembers performing the 2350 headcount." Yet, the report was there in DIMS.
This is a crucial finding of falsification of evidence contemporaneous to events in the 2006 detainee deaths. It should have been a red flag. But Army investigators minimized the fact that someone was lying about the headcount of cellblock prisoners, three of whom would soon be found dead. Instead, they found the falsification of the cellblock census (which is what a random headcount is) to be "insignificant." Their reasoning? Medical teams had concluded the bodies were already dead an hour before the 2350 headcount was made.
Army authorities never asked why the headcount was falsified, or explained how they knew it was.
In fact, the falsified headcount is not "insignificant" at all if one concludes the detainees did not die the way the government said they did. That was the conclusion of former Guantánamo guard Joseph Hickman, who maintains in public press accounts and in his own book, that the detainees were brought back dead or nearly dead from a black site from within Guantánamo.
The problems with DIMS that surfaced in the 2006 "suicides" are worth remembering as we turn back to the situation surrounding the death of Al Hanashi.
The Investigation Into Who Shut Down DIMS
The DIMS database documented the "Who, What, When, Where, Why and How" of what went on in Guantánamo's cell blocks and detainee hospital, and could have provided a contemporaneous timeline of events immediately following the discovery of Al Hanashi's body, free from the vagaries of memory or dissembling.
The shutdown of the detainee database was no small event. The situation surrounding DIMS was so sensitive that no one I approached would speak to me on the record about it.
An NCIS interim report, dated as early as two days after Al Hanashi died, described the shutdown of DIMS at the time of Hanashi's death: "The chronology of events surrounding the death of V/Al Hanashi were not logged into the DIMS system allegedly due to an NCIS agent requesting no additional logging take place." ("V/Al Hanashi," a term used throughout NCIS reports, stands for Victim Al Hanashi.) Without the DIMS records, there is no way to test the timeline or the veracity of the observations of guards or medical personnel.
The order to halt all logging on the Guantánamo computer database apparently came once Al Hanashi was found unresponsive in his cell and before he was pronounced dead. The individual who made the request was "undetermined."
By November 2, 2009, five months after his death, Al Hanashi's case had progressed to initial review by a "Death Review Panel" convened at NCIS's Southeast Field Office in Mayport, Florida. The panel determined "additional investigative leads should be conducted." Besides further documentation from the autopsy and the death scene, the panel tasked investigators to "contact NCIS Special Agent [redacted] and clarify her actions during her initial response to V/Al Hanashi's death and the utilization of the detainee's Information Management System Database (DIMS)."
On January 8, 2010, another "Investigative Action" memo reported on two telephonic interviews with a female NCIS agent at the scene of Al Hanashi's death, presumably the same Special Agent mentioned by the Death Review Panel.
This agent told the investigating NCIS agent "she did not instruct any JTF GTMO personnel to cease making entries into the DIMS pertaining to V/Al Hanashi." Furthermore, investigators said the agent told them "she would not have issued such an order even if she had the authority to do so citing her efforts to encourage documentation."
This same agent added she didn't know of any other NCIS agent who would have given such an order.
Interestingly, there were members of other agencies present at the time. According to the female NCIS agent, when she arrived at the death scene along with another NCIS agent, there were two agents of the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) and an FBI Special Agent "already present at the BHU."
The female agent making the telephonic statement to NCIS added that she "doubted that any of the aforementioned personnel would have issues [sic] such a directive."
Who Made the Last DIMS Entry?
Despite all the missing information, in the first weeks of the investigation, NCIS determined via witness interviews of guard and medical staff, as well as "death scene processing," that the investigation had "failed to identify any suspicious circumstances surrounding V/Al Hanashi's death."
Despite the claims of no suspicious circumstances, the mystery over who turned off DIMS entries was never cleared up, even after months, and even years of further investigation.
NCIS investigation reports stated, "None of the aforementioned NCIS Special Agents that processed the death scene and/or initiated investigative actions pertaining to captioned investigation claimed that they instructed any JTF GTMO personnel to cease making entries into DIMS of V/Al Hanashi on 01/02 JUN09. In addition, all the aforementioned NCIS Special Agents advised that they would not have given such an instruction."
And yet, someone gave the instruction.
One person at Guantánamo, whose name was redacted in the FOIA release, was asked to provide the name of the person who made the last DIMS entry for Al Hanashi. This person told the NCIS investigator "he would have to send the request through his chain of command."
Why NCIS thought this individual might know who the last person was to make a DIMS entry for Al Hanashi has not been explained, but the NCIS Agent investigating the matter did tell this person to contact NCIS "if he had difficulty obtaining the requested information."
The FOIA record does not show that any name was ever obtained or reported back to NCIS. There is no record of this request up the chain of command ever being further discussed or acted upon.

Standing Rock: DoJ steps up aggression against those still battling the pipeline

Holdouts at the camp see the justice department’s recent round of arrests and warrants as an attempt to kill the movement’s momentum

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By Sam Levin

‘Our brothers and sisters are being snatched right in front of us.’

 ‘Our brothers and sisters are being snatched right in front of us.’ Photograph: Michael Nigro/Pacific/Barcroft
Aubree Peckham darted through the hallways of the casino, desperate for answers. Word had spread that day in early February that federal agents had arrested Standing Rock activist James White at the Prairie Knights resort in North Dakota, sending his friends and relatives into a panic.
“Everyone was sobbing, running around from room to room, trying to get better information,” said Peckham, a 32-year-old Mescalero Apache woman who has been fighting the Dakota Access pipeline since last year. “Our brothers and sisters are being snatched right in front of us.”
White, who goes by the name Angry Bird, is one of at least six Native American activists now facing serious federal charges tied to the nearly year-long fight against the Dakota Access pipeline.
Demonstrators at the anti-pipeline camps in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, now fear that the US justice department’s recent round of arrests and warrants is the beginning of an aggressive prosecution effort by Donald Trump’s administration.
After Trump ordered expedited approvals of the $3.7bn pipeline in late January, the oil corporation was able to resume drilling across the Missouri river and has said its pipeline could be operational within 30 days. Hundreds of activists, known as “water protectors”, have vowed to keeping fighting the project on the ground, but state officials have said they would soon be evicting the camps.
Aubree Peckham has been fighting the Dakota Access pipeline since last year.
 Aubree Peckham has been fighting the Dakota Access pipeline since last year. Photograph: Sam Levin for the Guardian
On top of the growing spectre of imminent defeat and a resurgence of police violence, many are now grappling with federal court cases that could destroy the lives of activists who have dedicated months to protecting the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s water, sacred grounds and treaty lands from the pipeline.
“We cannot afford to let them treat us like properties of the state,” said Ollie, a 24-year-old water protector whose partner Michael Markus, known as Rattler, was recently taken into custody by federal officers. “That’s what the reservations were in the first place.”
Ollie, who is Eastern Cherokee, Sicilian and Greek, did not want to use her full name out of fear for her personal safety. She is one of many loved ones and friends of five indigenous men who recently faced a federal grand jury indictment on charges of civil disorder and use of fire to commit an offense.
Michael Markus, aka Rattler.
 Michael Markus, aka Rattler. Photograph: Liminal Films
The charges against Rattler, Angry Bird and three others could carry up to 15 years in federal prison and stem from a standoff with police on 27 October 2016during which law enforcement deployed armored vehicles and pepper spray and ultimately arrested 141 people. Although local law enforcement have made roughly 700 arrests since last year and filed a wide range of state-level felony charges, the DoJ prosecutions have dramatically heightened anxieties.
Attorneys and activists said they were particularly concerned given the timing of the indictment – months after the incident but less than two weeks after Trump’s inauguration. Trump has invested in the oil corporation and taken donations from its CEO. The Guardian also recently reported that an FBI terrorism task force is investigating Standing Rock activists.
A spokesman for US attorneys office declined to comment.
“I just want to see my dad,” said Smokey, Angry Bird’s son, who also did not want to use his full name. On a frigid morning, seated inside a crowded tent at Oceti Sakowin, the main indigenous campsite near the pipeline, he said he was struggling to make sense of his father’s detention. “It don’t make no sense bringing charges for things that happened last year. They’re trying to accuse them of being ringleaders. But they’re not. There are no leaders.”
Sandra Freeman, attorney with the Water Protector Legal Collective, who is representing Rattler, said he was being prosecuted under a law that is rarely used in federal court, passed in 1968 to control the Black Liberation Movement and Vietnam war protests. She said the charges were clearly meant to repress free speech rights.
“Law enforcement tactics started escalating and markedly changing in January,” she said. “It was no longer a confrontation at demonstrations, but single people being picked off, being brutalized and being interrogated. In general, it’s law enforcement out of control.”
But federal agents have said that the men set fires to barricades separating police and demonstrators on 27 October.
Ollie said: “They’re going after Rattler to make him a poster child and a scapegoat. He’s never done anything violent. He’s nothing but a gentle giant.
The couple met at camp last year when they worked together as akicita, a Lakota word that water protectors used for one of the security teams. “Rattler’s purpose of being at camp was to make a safe space for people.”
Rattler, who is Lakota Oglala and a US Marine veteran, has also consistently been cooperative and compliant with law enforcement, according to Ollie, who noted that he willingly turned himself in on a state warrant and that the two of them recently paid a $10,000 cash bond so he could be released. But instead of letting him leave after his Morton County hearing, federal agents took him into custody, she said.
“I felt safer having guns pointed at me at close range than going into court,” she said, noting that she now constantly checks to see if there is a warrant for her arrest and refuses to travel alone.
Some fear the defendants won’t get fair juries and trials in Bismarck, where most residents are white.
“They all already have in their minds that all the water protectors are a bunch of rioting and out-of-control criminals,” said Michael Fasig, an Oglala Lakota man who is facing state charges and vehemently denies the allegations. “I want to show the jury the actual truth, the actual facts … But we’re going through their system.”
The slew of cases against activists has also fueled prejudice and racism toward indigenous people in North Dakota, said Anthony Gazotti, a 47-year-old Apache man. While helping set up a new camp site, he recounted the discrimination he faced at a supply store in Mandan, an hour north of Cannon Ball.
“You could just see the disdain and disgust on their face … just because they assumed I was with the water protectors” he said, in tears. “It hurts. It’s lies. These are some of the best people I’ve ever met.”
Anthony Gazotti: ‘You could just see the disdain and disgust on their face.’
 Anthony Gazotti: ‘You could just see the disdain and disgust on their face.’ Photograph: Sam Levin for the Guardian
Ollie said it seemed clear that the federal cases were aimed at killing the momentum of Standing Rock, which inspired an unprecedented gathering of indigenous people from across the globe.
“They are trying to disempower this movement. They do this purposely to break us down,” she said, noting that the detainees were not leaders, since the indigenous groups don’t operate with clear hieracrchies.
Some supporters have compared Rattler and Red Fawn Fallis, another demonstrator taken into custody last year, to famous indigenous protesters like Leonard Peltier, whose activism has led to decades of federal incarceration.
But Ollie said she refused to think that way: “He’s not convicted. We can’t let them become the next political prisoners.”

Russia seeks 'post-West' world order

Russian foreign minister lays out global vision where 'each country is defined by its sovereignty' as US officials pledge commitment to NATO allies concerned by Moscow's resurgence.

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MUNICH - Russia Saturday called for an end to an outdated world order dominated by the West, even as US Vice President Mike Pence pledged Washington's "unwavering" commitment to its transatlantic allies in NATO.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov laid out a diametrically opposed global vision and offered "pragmatic" ties with the United States, just hours after Pence vowed to stand with Europe to rein in a resurgent Moscow.

"I hope that (the world) will choose a democratic world order -- a post-West one -- in which each country is defined by its sovereignty," said Lavrov.

The time when the West called the shots was over while NATO was a relic of the Cold War, he said.
In its place, Moscow wanted a relationship with Washington that is "pragmatic with mutual respect and acknowledgement of our common responsibility for global stability".
The two countries had never been in direct conflict, he said, and were close neighbours across the Baring Straits.

Moscow has been impatiently waiting for US President Donald Trump to make good on his pledge to improve ties which plunged to a post-Cold War low as Barack Obama slapped on sanctions over the Ukraine crisis and Russia's alleged meddling in Trump's election.
On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and voiced his willingness to work with him in fighting terorism.

But in the face of growing heat over its links to Moscow, Trump's administration appears to be backing off the warmer words used earlier for the former Cold War foe.

- 'Greatest ally' -

Exasperated and worried by Trump's calling into question long-standing foreign policy assumptions, European leaders have warned Washington not to take transatlantic ties for granted.
On a European roadshow this week, Trump's lieutenants have sought to reassure jittery allies that the administration will hold fast to existing foreign policies, including maintaining sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

Hours before Lavrov addressed the Munich Security Conference, Pence told the same forum that the United States will stay loyal to its old friends.

"The United States is and will always be your greatest ally. Be assured that President Trump and our people are truly devoted to our transatlantic union," Pence said.
The US would also not relent in pushing Russia to honour the Minsk ceasefire accords with Ukraine, he said.

"The United States will continue to hold Russia accountable, even as we search for new common ground, which as you know, President Trump believes can be found," the vice-president said.
At NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, Defence Secretary James Mattis said Russia must first "prove itself" and respect international law before there could be any improvement in relations strained by Moscow's Ukraine intervention and annexation of Crimea.

Mattis also said the transatlantic bond was "as strong as I've ever seen it", and emphasised that America remained "rock solid" in its support of Article 5 -- NATO's core "one for all, all for one" collective defence pledge.

Likewise, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated he would take a tough line in his dealings with Russia.

Following his first meeting with Lavrov in Bonn on Thursday, Tillerson said the US would cooperate with Moscow but only when doing so "will benefit the American people".
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been a key player in mediating talks between Ukraine and Russia, said it was "regrettable" that Europe had not managed to reach a stable relationship with Russia over the last 25 years.

"I will not give up on finding a way for better relations with Russia despite our different views on many questions," she said, championing international cooperation rather than a policy of isolationism.
"In a year in which we see unimaginable challenges we can either work together or retreat to our individual roles. I hope that we will find a common position," she said.

The Cognitive Bias President Trump Understands Better Than You

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By Emily dreyfuss

AMERICANS BORN IN the United States are more murderous than undocumented immigrants. Fighting words, I know. But why? After all, that’s just what the numbers say.
Still, be honest: you wouldn’t linger over a story with that headline. It’s “dog bites man.” It’s the norm. And norms aren’t news. Instead, you’ll see two dozen reporters flock to a single burning trash can during an Inauguration protest. The aberrant occurrence is the story you’ll read and the picture you’ll see. It’s news because it’s new.
The problem here is not just that this singling out creates a distorted, fish-eye lens version of what’s really happening. It’s that the human psyche is predisposed to take an aberration—what linguist George Lakoff has called the “salient exemplar”—and conflate it with the norm. This cognitive bias itself isn’t new. But in a media environment driven by clicks, where politicians can bypass journalistic filters entirely to deliver themselves straight to citizens, it’s newly exploitable.
You know who else isn’t as likely to commit murders in the US as native-born citizens? Refugees. Or immigrants from the seven countries singled out in President Trump’s shot-down travel ban. Or for that matter, immigrants at all. According to numerous studies, increased immigration correlates with lower violent crime rates in a community. Yet next week, Trump is promising a revised travel ban in the name of safety.
In the past, the president has also promised to publish a weekly list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. What he hasn’t promised to publish is a list of crimes committed by Americans. That’s not news. But his list is likely to create the false impression that undocumented immigrants are especially prone to commit violent crimes—an impression in which the human brain is complicit.

Taking Advantage of Bias

Lakoff, a University of California, Berkeley linguist and well-known Democratic activist, cites Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” as the signature “salient exemplar.” Reagan’s straw woman—a minority mother who uses her government money on fancy bling rather than on food for her family—became an effective rhetorical bludgeon to curb public assistance programs even though the vast majority of recipients didn’t abuse the system in that way. The image became iconic, even though it was the exception rather than the rule.
Psychologists call this bias the “availability heuristic,” an effect Trump has sought to exploit since the launch of his presidential campaign, when he referred to undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists.
“It basically works the way memory works: you judge the frequency, the probability, of something based on how easily you can bring it to mind,” says Northeastern University psychologist John Coley. “Creating a vivid, salient image like that is a great way to make it memorable.”
This is the same bias that makes you fear swimming in the ocean lest you get attacked by a shark, despite shark attacks being far less common than, say, death by coconut. When something is memorable, it tends to be the thing you think of first, and then it has an outsize influence on your understanding of the world. After the movie Jaws came out, a generation of people was afraid to swim in the sea—not because shark attacks were more likely but because all those movie viewers could more readily imagine them. (Disclosure.)
Psychologists stress that your brain has to work this way, to a certain extent—otherwise you’d have a very hard time differentiating and prioritizing the avalanche of inputs you receive throughout your life. “It’s not a cognitive malfunction,” says Coley. “But it can be purposefully exploited.” When Trump uses a salient exemplar that will lodge in your brain, he’s manipulating your brain’s natural way of sorting information.
But if you can’t totally eliminate your brain’s predisposition, you can at least work against the potential for bias it creates by understanding that it exists. Journalists in particular need to be mindful because exploiters of this bias, such as the president, are taking advantage not just of the way the human brain works but the way journalism works. The daily news at its worst becomes a catalog of salacious salient exemplars that only serve to distort the reality journalism in its most ideal version aspires to reflect. “We haven’t done as good a job of actually explaining how things function at a higher level, the success stories,” says Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. This failing aided Trump during the campaign, Lipinski says. By focusing on negative stories, the news helped to paint a picture of an America in need of “being made great again.”
Recently, Trump told an audience of senior military commanders at CENTCOM that the “very, very dishonest media” didn’t report on terrorism. The implication was that journalists bury important news about terrorism because of some alternate agenda. Later that day, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer released a list of terrorist acts the president felt that journalists didn’t spend enough time covering. Journalists pounced: Hey, we reported on ALL OF THOSE! We won Pulitzers for our reporting! Here are a bazillion front page headlines proving it!
In doing so, journalists took the bait. The stories about their stories fed the narrative that terrorism is everywhere (it’s not). Instead, reporters need to get smarter about covering the non-aberrant, to show that commonplace does not equal mundane. It may not be rare, but it’s reality.