Ill-informed Fox anchors spread fears of al Qaeda link to California fires
David Edwards and Nick Juliano
Published: Wednesday October 24, 2007
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Questionable 4-year-old FBI memo presented as new to stoke terror fears

Did al Qaeda start the California wildfires?

As more than a million people escaped the flames, Fox News anchors couldn't help speculating about a terrorism link to the blazes ravaging southern California.

"I've heard some people talk about this a little bit to me, but have you heard anybody suggest that this could be some form of terrorism," Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy asked Wednesday morning.

Correspondent Adam Housley said he's received "hundreds of comments" from readers of his Fox News blog speculating about a link to terrorism.

Investigators have determined that one 15,000 acre fire in Orange County was deliberately set, and Housley reported that authorities arrested one man who set a hillside on fire. Causes of most other fires are still being investigated, and there has been little speculation beyond Fox News about a terror plot.

A review of Housley's blog posts about the fire reveals that his characterization of the terror fears perhaps was inflated.

Of his 15 posts on the fires, just two included speculation from commenters about a terrorism link.

"Is anyone asking how these fires started? I see no comments or speculations," observed "clyde teeter" in response to a post Tuesday. "Could it be linked to illegal alien misadventure on the border [...] Terrorism? ... If you are a journalist, then these questions need to be asked and investigated. Your coverage is admirable but the emotional journalism about the loss of peoples homes is not helping to find the causes."

Fox & Friends co-host Judge Andrew Napolitano tried to serve as the voice of reason.

"That's a fear, Adam, but is there any evidence of it?" the judge asked.

Such skepticism could not last, though.

Later Wednesday, Fox anchors returned to fanning the terror fears, digging up a four-year-old FBI memo and presenting it as new information relating to an al Qaeda link to the fires.

In June of 2003, FBI agents in Denver detailed an al Qaeda detainee's discussion of a plot to set forest fires around the western United States, although investigators couldn't determine whether the detainee was telling the truth, and his plot did not include setting fires in California.

Such small discrepancies in dates and details proved to be no obstacles for Fox anchors, who reported that the memo was from "late June of this year" and "is just popping up this morning."

The memo was first reported by the Arizona Republic in July 2003, although a Fox anchor said it was reported "five days ago." That confusion seems to stem from an inability to read the date on an Associated Press account of the memo from the time it was first reported.

A July 11, 2003, AP story, still available online via USA Today, reported, "The contents of the June 25 memo from the FBI's Denver office were reported Friday by The Arizona Republic."

On Fox, that information became, "The June 25 memo from the FBI's Denver offices was reported three days ago, excuse me five days ago, by the Arizona Republic."

Further distorting the report, Fox failed to mention a key caveat from the 2003 AP story they appear to have ripped from.

"Rose Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, told The Associated Press that officials there took note of the warning but didn't see a need to act further on it."

The following video is from Fox's Fox & Friends, broadcast on October 23, 2007.

Partial Transcript (via ThinkProgress):


DOOCY: Youíre looking live at pictures from San Diego ó Santiago, CA, where the wildfires continue. We were talking earlier in todayís telecast with Adam Housley and apparently police officers in a hovering helicopter saw a guy starting one of these fires. And Allison Allison Camerota, an FBI memo from late in June of this year is popping up this morning and it is ominous.

CAMEROTA: This actually has happened for many years in the past as well. An FBI sent out to local law-enforcement said that an al Qaeda detainee had given them some information that the next wave of terrorism could be in the form of setting wild fires. Adam Housley said lots of people on his block were asking him about it. Obviously this is something the FBI has looked into. They will continue to investigate it.

CARLSON: If they have this person in custody it probably wonít take long to be able to develop a link if there is one.

KILMEADE: A June 25 memo from the FBIís Denver offices reported three days ago, excuse me, five days ago, by the Arizona Republic, that is a newspaper, they have been carrying the story and they continue to expand upon it.

DOOCY: Brian, the plot they say, according to this detainee, and they donít know if the detainee is telling the truth. The plot was to set three or four wildfires. But they donít mention California. They mention Colorado, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. We do know for a fact that a number of the fires in southern California are of a suspicious nature and they are investigating arson.