Terrorism: A shifting landscape

The war on terror and the Osama bin Laden manhunt have brought an age-old debate about self-censorship to the geosciences.

The camera angle was tight, neatly framing Osama bin Laden, his second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri, and their two cohorts, sitting in an indistinguishable ravine, perhaps somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The tape, which aired first on Aljazeera a month after 9/11 and featured bin Laden praising the attacks, contained no clues of the terrorists’ location–until its final few throwaway frames.

As he watched the tape’s concluding moments on CNN, Jack Shroder, a geoscientist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), noticed something–the camera had been filming when it was wrestled from its tripod. The tight frame around bin Laden now swung suddenly upward, providing a split-second glance of sheared crystalline rocks. “I know where that is!” exclaimed Shroder, who mapped Afghanistan in the 1970s and cofounded the Afghanistan Studies Center at UNO. “That’s the Spin Ghar range.”

The rest happened quickly. After Shroder told a reporter where he believed the tape was shot, U.S. government officials visited him in Omaha and asked him to keep his expert opinion quiet–they also enlisted him in the bin Laden manhunt. Meanwhile, at the University of Cincinnati, geography researcher Richard Beck was inspired by Shroder’s deduction. Familiar with the Pakistan side of the border from doing exploratory fieldwork there for Amoco, Beck began formulating his own guess as to bin Laden’s whereabouts. Within a few weeks, he was forwarding possible search targets, such as Afghanistan’s Zhawar Kili cave complex, to the U.S. military, officially ushering the geosciences (geography and geology) into the war on terror.

That two academics would work so closely with the government at first gave no one in the geoscience community pause. The U.S. government and geoscientists have been intertwined for decades; a large number of geoscientists are either employees of offices such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or they work on outsourced projects that are bankrolled by federal dollars. Nor were Beck and Shroder alone. A number of other geoscientists rapidly realized their expertise could be applied to combating terrorism. In January 2002, the Association of American Geographers (AAG) held a workshop to discuss how its members could aid in areas as disparate as emergency response and biosecurity.

Beck, too, wanted to collaborate with his colleagues. In the May 2003 issue of the AAG journal Professional Geographer, he detailed his successes and frustrations in the bin Laden search–with one caveat: “Some information sources used in this study, some details of the method, and some conclusions have been omitted” for the safety of U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.

This proviso raised some hackles. “We’re in the business of fairness, openness, and transparency,” says John O’Loughlin, a geography professor at the University of Colorado and editor of the non-AAG affiliated journal Political Geography. “Anything that violates that doesn’t belong in an academic journal.”

O’Loughlin contends that the gold standard for academic publication is that research be replicable and that Beck’s work didn’t meet that standard. Beck disagrees, arguing that Shroder did exactly that when he commented on Beck’s work (and revealed much of his own) in a November 2005 Professional Geographer article. “There’s a certain segment of academia that’s rabid, and you’re never going to satisfy them,” Beck says.

“Self-censorship is a completely legitimate thing to do,” adds Shroder, who, at the government’s request, removed many sensitive items from the Afghanistan Studies Center web site after 9/11.

Troubled by such sentiment, O’Loughlin is taking the matter to the AAG Publications Committee in hopes of persuading it to devise more rigid replication standards that would prevent publication without, as he terms it, “the full Monty”–complete openness–regarding methods and funding.

As for Beck and Shroder, they’ve long relinquished their search for bin Laden. Despite the criticism and the fact that bin Laden’s still at large, they believe they made an important contribution to both geoscience and the war on terror. Especially, Shroder says, considering bin Laden’s new preferred means of communication–audiotape. “They sure got the message that we can tell where they are.”

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