DOJ and FBI backtrack after criticism for removing ISIS from Orlando transcript

The department originally released edited transcripts of the 911 calls made by Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, part of an effort to limit IS' ability to use American media as propaganda.  

Evan Vucci/AP/File
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, pictured here in a May 2016 file photo, announced the Department of Justice would be editing the transcripts of the 911 calls made by the Orlando shooter in order to limit ISIS' propaganda.

The Department of Justice released edited transcripts from Orlando shooter Omar Mateen on Monday, the day after Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the DOJ and FBI would remove Mr. Mateen's pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State in order to not further IS propaganda. 

Hours later, after backlash from politicians including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Florida Governor Rick Scott, the DOJ and FBI reversed course, releasing full transcripts and calling the morning's controversy “an unnecessary distraction", as Fox News reported. 

Although some say the decision to edit the transcripts to avoid giving ISIS more publicity was a well-intentioned attempt to fight ISIS's strategy of using the American media for propaganda, others argue the decision to edit the information was censoring the reality of the situation.     

The originally released transcript showed that Mateen, who killed 49 people in an attack on a gay nightclub, called himself an "Islamic soldier" and told the negotiator to tell the United States to stop bombing Iraq and Syria.  

The government's controversial decision to edit the transcripts was an attempt to stop ISIS propaganda from spreading further than it already has, says David Altheide, an emeritus Regents' professor at Arizona State University who studies terrorism and the media. 

"They're trying to reduce the idea that some people have been influenced by it and to reduce the celebration of some of [ISIS] propagandists," Dr. Altheide tells The Christian Science Monitor. "The problem with this is that once people are aware the government is doing this, people who oppose certain government policies will react to that and say...the government is trying to control the public's perception of the impact of ISIS on individuals."  

But editing the transcripts as a way to limit ISIS publicity was "absurd," Katharine Gorka, a conservative national security pundit and the president and co-founder of the Council on Global Security, tells the Monitor. Ms. Gorka was part of a team of national security advisors to Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign. 

"All it does it make Americans feel frustrated, like they're being lied to by their government," she says. "Honestly, in the long run I don't think it's going to make a drop of difference to [ISIS] or to the amount of publicity they get."  

A study from Australia's Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank, concluded that ISIS has made it difficult to report independently from Syria and Iraq, given many news outlets' reliance on its propaganda footage, and that the extremist group has been able to use its media to significantly shape its coverage in the western press.

The mainstream US media often reports on ISIS using the group's own propaganda directly, terrorism and media expert Brigitte Nacos, an adjunct professor at Columbia University, tells the Monitor. 

"The mainstream media reports basically on what the ISIS propaganda machine reports itself," she says. "Most people aren't looking all the time for ISIS messages and videos on Youtube or Twitter or wherever they are, but they learn about it through the mainstream media."

The DOJ is well-intentioned to limit the attention ISIS receives after Orlando, she says, but the attack has already received such significant publicity that it may be a moot strategy. Yet Dr. Nacos also argues that the threat ISIS poses to Americans has been overhyped by the American media, although it remains a major threat globally.

Gorka, however, argues that the media is "doing its job" to cover IS thoroughly, however it can, given public concern.  

"I think that the government, by making this decision, is doing the people a disservice because they are trying to change the reality of what actually happened and what the guy actually said," she says. 

The true debate isn't about how much coverage ISIS merits, but what type, Altheide says. Common coverage makes the group look "far more effective than they are," he suggests, and the media needs to more critically analyze ISIS proclamations about its own activities. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.