Greg Sargent gets DHS on the record in denying a report yesterday that supposedly tied Jared Loughner to an anti-semitic fringe group. The initial report from Fox provided the basis for a number of assumptions about the attack and its motivations:
For the last 24 hours, the Web has been alive with speculation that the Arizona shooter has some sort of ties to a right-wing group called American Renaissance. The primary source for this claim is a Fox News report from yesterday saying that law enforcement had made this determination based on information provided by the Department of Homeland Security.
But a DHS official tells me that the department has not established any such possibility, undercutting what appears to be the primary basis for this claim.
Fox News’s report yesterday initially claimed that a DHS memo had outlined the possible connection, and defined American Renaissance as a “pro-white racist organization” that Jared Loughner “mentioned in some of his internet postings.” Fox later walked back the report a bit, sourcing the claim to “a law enforcement memo based on information provided by DHS.”
The Fox report caused a splash, with some news orgs reporting that anonymous officials had confirmed such possible ties. Some conservatives railed at DHS for supposedly trying to tie the shooter to the right for political reasons, and others disputed the suggestion that this displayed the shooter’s ideological leanings.
It’s yet another early claim that appears to have been at least questionable, if not entirely incorrect. Other media contacted the group yesterday, which disclaimed any responsibility and insisted that Loughner’s name wasn’t in their records. If DHS had information to the contrary, they wouldn’t be denying it today.
Either Fox News got this wrong, or someone at DHS did. I’d be inclined to suspect the latter, but it could also be the former; as the past 48 hours have proven, people tend to hear what they want to hear in the aftermath of a horrific tragedy. Steven Den Beste wrote about the “fog of news” on Saturday in our Green Room, and David Gergen writes about it today at CNN — and why attempting to draw conclusions in that aftermath is always a bad idea:
My experience in government is that typically, a lot of what we think we know in the first hours of a calamitous event turns out to be wrong. In the White House Situation Room just after President Reagan was shot, we were first informed that press secretary Jim Brady had died; we said a prayer. Later we learned that he had miraculously survived; we said another prayer. It took even more time to figure out whether the would-be assassin John Hinckley was a loner or what his motivations were. Even now we are still unsure about what prompted his madness.
As a young man, I was struck by how quickly, after Lee Harvey Oswald had murdered President Kennedy, speculation centered on whether Oswald was acting on behalf of the right-wing John Birch Society. Instead, we learned that he was tied to Fidel Castro.
The country would be well served now if we cooled the accusations until we learn more about the man police are holding in Tucson, Jared Loughner. He appears to be mentally unhinged, someone who has threatened others. Why he targeted one of the most admired and popular political leaders in Arizona is unclear.
Gergen’s colleagues at CNN should take that advice, perhaps more than most. We will have plenty of time to see the evidence of Loughner’s lunacy and idiocy without either inventing it or twisting it to attack one’s own bêtes noirs. Let the fog clear before drawing conclusions, and especially before delivering moral lectures and proposing foolish laws. More on that later.