When I was in Southeast Asia from 2002 until 2006, stories about the Philippine organization Abu Sayyaf routinely asserted that it was "linked to Al Qaeda." Yes, at one time in the early 1990s, Osama bin Laden may have given money to the organization, but after 9/11 it degenerated into a lawless gang of bandits that kidnapped and murdered for money, without any ideological commitment.
What does "linked to Al Qaeda" mean, anyway? That the "linked" group's leaders pledge allegiance to Osama bin Laden? That some members trained at Al Qaeda camps, or that the terrorists share a hatred of the United States and Jews?
Osama bin Laden wasn't Einstein, not even Lenin or Che Guevara. He was Charles Manson. Al Qaeda never posed an existential threat to the United States, failed to establish control in a single country, let alone establish a caliphate from Morocco to Indonesia. What he did on 9/11 was a crime, a crime writ large, not the opening salvo in a war, and we should have treated him as a long-bearded psychopath cowering in a cave.
Instead, like the politicians, journalists were consumed with the fear that there might be a terrorist attack they hadn't anticipated, and that there were Al Qaeda sleeper cells crawling around Europe. Newspapers deployed their resources accordingly.
They were far less concerned about civil liberties. Editors long ignored isolated reports that the United States was holding suspected terrorists in secret prisons. "We wouldn't publish it even if we knew," a senior editor at a major American newspaper said when it was suggested that his paper devote its impressive investigative talent to exposing the secret prisons.
That outlook, formed by 9/11, was shared throughout the industry. It took four years before the "secret prisons" were exposed, by Dana Priest at the Washington Post (though her editors, at the request of the White House, withheld some of what she had found, including the countries that were cooperating with the U.S.).
When reports began to emerge that suspects were being tortured, the Bush Administration came up with the euphemism "enhanced interrogation techniques."
We supinely went along. For decades prior to 9/11, the four largest American newspapers called waterboarding torture, according to a study by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. Then, in 2004, in the aftermath of revelations that the Bush Administration was engaged in waterboarding of terrorist suspects, the four newspapers almost never referred to waterboarding as torture.
When suspected terrorist suspects were taken to Guantanamo, they were by any common understanding prisoners. But the government called them "detainees," and so did we, which sounds far less pernicious.
A book could be written about the lives that have been ruined by allegations from intelligence officials that a man was a "suspected" terrorist. We routinely reported on these arrests without flinching. One of the first cases of extraordinary rendition was that of Muhammad Saad Iqbal, a Pakistani who was picked up in Jakarta in December of 2001. He was secretly shipped off by the CIA to Egypt, where he was tortured. Indonesia said he was sent to Egypt because he had an Egyptian passport and was wanted for visa violations, which a major American and an Australian newspaper reported prominently in stories that gave credence to the allegations that he was a terrorist sent to Indonesia to hatch other plots. In fact, he had never even been to Egypt, nor Afghanistan. He was completely innocent, without any "links" of any nature to Al Qaeda; indeed, after being held by Americans for seven years, he was released without a single charge being filed against him. No one will be held accountable for the damage to his life -- not public officials, not journalists.