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November 6th, 2002 Amy Roe | News Stories
 

professor soundbite

Gary Perlstein is a "terrorism expert." Because we said so.

     
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Gary Perlstein, professor emeritus in the administration of justice, is slight in stature, a feature exaggerated by a slouch. The Winstons he chain-smokes have sandpapered his 62-year-old voice to a gravelly rasp, but he hardly needs a microphone. A professor for three decades, he's learned to project. Besides, these days, whenever Perlstein speaks, people listen.

Late last month, Perlstein held an audience of 100 or so rapt with attention. Though he has taught at Portland State University since 1971--his entire career--it was the first time Perlstein ever took the lectern in the Cramer Hall auditorium. He seemed buoyed by the opportunity, merrily telling the audience of alumni and students about a recent call he got from 48 Hours, the network newsmagazine show. He sighed and rolled his eyes as if to say, "Will they ever leave me alone?"

In the constellation of academics, Perlstein is Oregon's rising star. He's genial, he's witty, and though he mocks the desperate, harried reporters who often call him for a quote, he's more than happy to oblige. Perlstein is a guy who can't say no.

"I consider it a community service," he says.

The list of publications and news shows that have quoted Perlstein is far-flung. BBC, The New York Times Magazine, National Public Radio, the Associated Press, Time magazine, The Globe and Mail of Toronto, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, 60 Minutes--all have called on him for comment.

Perlstein is even more popular with local media. It seems his name appears in Portland papers (including this one) as often as Rasheed Wallace is. He is even under contract as a commentator for KGW-TV, a deal that forbids him to talk to other local stations about terrorism, although he can speak on what he calls "straight crime."

To his students, Perlstein is a hometown hero. "He's a Portland icon," says PSU junior Stuart Kisvarday, who is taking a class from Perlstein. "He's supposed to be the pre-eminent voice on terrorism [on campus], if not the world."

Overheated praise is a common consequence of fame. Cool-headed scrutiny of his credentials, paired with careful analysis of his comments to the media, however, reveal a decidedly different Dr. Perlstein. This is the man helping to fill newspapers and airwaves with insight that actually isn't.

Slate media critic Jack Shafer says Perlstein fits the description of the instant expert. "Because he returns reporters' phone calls and responds to the TV bookers' requests and--this is really essential--knows how to form a cogent soundbite in real time to fill the hole in a reporter's story or the closing 10 seconds of a TV talk show's time, he becomes an essential expert.

"His stock runs high," Shafer explains, "even though what he produces is generally half-baked."

Fifteen years ago on Dec. 17, Gary Perlstein had an aneurysm in his brain. For two weeks after the surgery, he could hardly walk, let alone leave his house.

It gave him fresh perspective on the meaning of freedom: "Terrorism," he says dryly, "is standing in your house staring out your window at your car and not being able to drive."

When he recovered, Perlstein drove his old Jeep the 10 miles to PSU's campus and never again took life for granted. He loves to teach. For more than two decades he has taught courses on criminology; for six years, he was chair of the Administration of Justice department. He prefers a heated classroom debate to the politicking and paper-pushing of administration.

In those days, Perlstein was an anonymous educator, called into service as a pundit on rare occasions, as when followers of the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh poisoned a salad bar in The Dalles in 1984.

Divorced and childless, he lived alone in Lake Oswego with his dogs. Once a week, a cleaning lady came to tidy his bachelor pad, a "fixer-upper" house he's never quite finished fixing up. His "lady friend," a counselor he declines to name, lives a mile and a half away. He's long since given up trying to get her to marry him; she likes the room-of-one's-own arrangement.

At 6:10 am on Sept. 11, 2001, Perlstein's quiet life changed. A ringing phone jolted him awake. KXL radio was on the line. Turn on the TV, said the reporter, and give the radio station a comment. He saw the second plane hit the south tower.

"The first thing out of my mouth was "Osama bin Laden," says Perlstein, who concedes it was nothing more than an educated guess. It didn't matter. In that instant, Perlstein became an expert.

Since that moment, Perlstein's profile has ascended in ways he never imagined. According to Shafer, Perlstein's been quoted in the press more than 60 times in the past two years. And it's not just reporters who've tracked him down. Perlstein says the Royal Canadian Mounted Police called him for advice on security for the G-8 meetings earlier this year in Toronto.

"I was flabbergasted. That they would call a person they don't know," he says, his voice trailing off, shaking his head in disbelief.

More recently, Perlstein was caught in the maelstrom of speculation about the Maryland sniper. "They kept calling me about the sniper, and I said, 'I don't know yet.' I was called by Time magazine: 'Is the sniper a terrorist?' I said, 'Maybe, but I don't think so.'"

Perlstein's current project is a book on domestic terrorism. He says two academic publishers are interested in it, but he and his agent are holding out for a general-interest publisher that would yield a trade paperback with better distribution. "If the media would leave me alone, I could finish this book," he says. The comment is tongue in cheek; Perlstein is keenly aware that the media attention he receives will only serve to promote his future work.

erlstein's credentials have been super-sized by the media's need for talking heads. In his less guarded moments, even Perlstein admits this. "I'm considered an authority on terrorism," he says. "It's other people who consider me that."

The professor does boast relevant accomplishments, however. First, for 25 years he has been a student of terrorism, albeit an informal one. He has read about terrorist groups and attended international conferences, and he claims to have befriended a man who had "a lot of military contacts."

Perlstein also authored, along with his grad-school mentor, Harold Vetter, a 1991 book called Perspectives in Terrorism. Perlstein called the text "the best general book on terrorism out there today."

The book, which is out of print but reprinted specially for use in Perlstein's classes, is not well-known. Larry Johnson, a former deputy director for transportation security, anti-terrorism assistance training and special operations for the U.S. State Department--as well as a regular "source" for national media--said he has never heard of Perlstein.

Since 9/11, Johnson says, the term "terrorism expert" has become increasingly elastic. "A lot of times, if they can pronounce Imad Mughnyiha [Arabic for 'I'm an expert'] and can spell it, they're an expert," he says.

Two other individuals contacted by WW, both academics who study terrorism, did not recognize Perlstein or know of his work.

Those who are familiar with his book don't speak highly of it. Harvey Kushner, chair of the criminal-justice department at Long Island University and regular guest on news programs about terrorism, has written his own books on the subject. In Kushner's 1998 book, The Future of Terrorism: Violence in the New Millennium, he writes that Perlstein's prior book typifies the superficial speculation that characterizes ivory-tower observers:

In Perspectives on Terrorism, Harold Vetter and Gary Perlstein (1991) argue that the continental United States should remain relatively "free from much of the violence that seems to be endemic to other parts of the world."...

Clearly, these textbook writers of the early 1990s missed predicting that international terrorism would strike right here inside the United States.... [Vetter and Perlstein] should have followed the lead of investigative reporters like [Steven] Emerson and [John] Kamen, as well as the writings of the U.S. Department of State and the FBI, and paid closer attention to some political and social occurrences that spelled trouble for the United States."

Reached by phone from New York, Kushner was unequivocal in his views of Perlstein's qualifications: "He has no reputation. The circle of people that I travel in worldwide don't know who he is." Does he have credibility? "Absolutely not," Kushner said. "Zero."

Without law-enforcement experience and contacts, Kushner says Perlstein can only make educated guesses. "He's just talking about what he reads in the newspaper. I'm there on the front lines. He doesn't have a reputation. How could he know if he has no inside knowledge? It's one thing to sit in a classroom and hypothesize; it's another to know what's going on."

Perlstein maintains that his credentials are solid and that his analysis is, for the most part, correct.

erlstein's comments to the media tend to fall into one of three categories.

Often he is quoted making vague generalizations. For example, when asked by a New Jersey newspaper reporter whether the D.C.-area sniper was a terrorist, Perlstein said, "The only difference between him and most political terrorists is that usually we can tell quicker what their motive is. With al-Qaida, we knew; with (Unabomber) Ted Kaczynski we knew. With this person, he's just trying to prove that no one is safe." (See "Perlstein Quotables," page 27.)

Perlstein can be counted on to state that even in the wake of 9/11 government agencies are not well-coordinated and do not communicate with each other. He frequently repeats the popular mantra that terrorism is a serious threat and terrorists will strike again.

The second category is Perlstein's Portland-specific commentary. In such instances, the quotes tend to be hyperbolic. If a reporter wants to portray Portland as a city with a history of radical fundamentalism, Perlstein is the go-to guy. He has consistently said the city's tolerance makes it a good place to hide.

On Oct. 6, the day after the arrests of four Muslims in Portland, the Associated Press released a story, "Small-Time Portland Attracts Radical Elements," which said that in addition to rain and coffee shops, Portland is "also known as a refuge for religious and political radicals." The story went on to quote Perlstein: "We have always been a little different in our thinking.... We are a very tolerant population and so we wouldn't ask too many questions."

That same day, the Chicago Tribune published its own take on Portland's radical element. Again Perlstein was quoted, this time recalling 15 years ago (in other stories it was 10), when he "could walk onto campus and buy a copy of a magazine put out by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine."

A day later, the Boston Globe published an article written by another journalist, "Arrests Startle Few in Portland," that quoted Perlstein and said essentially the same thing. Perlstein's contention formed the basis for the Globe story--he was the only "expert" quoted.

It may well turn out that Portland has been home to militant Muslims who were conspiring against the United States, but in this regard the city is hardly unique. Similar arrests that have been made all over the country, in places as disparate as Lackawanna, N.Y., Detroit and Seattle. In any case, the portrayal of Portland as an incubator of radicalism is out of scale with the city's contribution to the counterculture. Berkeley, Brooklyn, Madison, Wisc., or Chicago would better fit this description.

The third category of Perlstein's comments is the most baffling. They have to do with his efforts to connect al Qaeda and eco-terrorism. At a recent timber-industry trade conference, Perlstein gave a talk explicitly linking the two, which he titled "Terrorism Is Terrorism Is Terrorism: The Relationship Between Al-Qaeda and Earth Liberation Front." In November of last year, he gave a City Club address titled "Terrorism Far and Near: Al-Qaeda and its American Cousins."

Perlstein's point is not that eco-terrorist organizations are populated by Islamic fundamentalists. Rather, he argues that though their motivations are different, the tactics of American eco-warriors are similar to those of al Qaeda.

Critics of his position think Perlstein is an industry shill, noting he is a founding board member of Stop Eco Violence, a year-old nonprofit organization headed by a former public relations officer for Louisiana Pacific. (Perlstein's forthcoming book on terrorism has a chapter on eco-terrorism.)

Michael Pendleton, a former University of Washington sociology professor who conducted a two-year study of forest crime, says Perlstein's conclusions about al Qaeda and eco-terrorism are wrongheaded. "It's ridiculous," Pendleton says.

Now a private consultant, Pendleton testified in February before a House subcommittee on Forest and Forest Health. He says linking eco-terrorists to al Qaeda is a transparent, over-the-top attempt by property-rights advocates and the timber industry--the "wise use" movement-- to whip up hysteria. "[Eco-terrorism] is wrong, but to throw them in the same class as al Qaeda is just ignorant," he says.

Larry Johnson, the former State Department official, agrees the comparison is baseless. "I'm always a little amused by people who talk about domestic terrorists. They're not really similar."

He says drawing parallels between al Qaeda and the Earth Liberation Front is misleading; "That's like comparing Delta Force to a Cub Scout group," Johnson says. They're both "largely male and they all wear uniforms."

"Al Qaeda is far more sophisticated and far-reaching. It's a religious belief. Earth Firsters have made the environment a religion, but it just doesn't have the historic power. It's a bit of a stretch."

erlstein may revel in the media glare. To be fair, though, he doesn't seek it. He has hired no publicity agent, doesn't have a website and can't even be bothered to update his curriculum vitae. He barely dresses up for speeches or the camera; often, he is pictured in the newspaper in his fleece-lined denim jacket, peering cheerfully through his thick, amber-tinted glasses. Rather, it is the media who have seized on this expert without scrutinizing his qualifications.

WW contacted a sampling of reporters who used Perlstein as a source. Many of them--including a reporter for the AP--were reluctant to tell WW how they found Perlstein. A Boston Globe reporter said his editor told him it would be "inappropriate" to comment on how or why he chose his sources.

Chicago Tribune reporter Andrew Zajac was one of the authors of a Sept. 16, 2001, story quoting Perlstein. "I don't know how he came on the radar screen," Zajac says of Perlstein. "Once 9/11 happened, everyone was just trading sources."

Vincent Schodolski, the Tribune's West Coast bureau chief, also quoted Perlstein in one of his stories. He says he got in touch with Perlstein through PROFnet, a service that provides reporters with experts from academia. Founded in 1992 as a way to link academics to the press, the searchable database is free to reporters. In order to list their experts and gain exposure, universities pay a sliding-scale fee based on enrollment. PSU has listed experts with PROFnet since 1996 and pays $700 a year for the service.

Slate's Jack Shafer says Perlstein matches the profile of what he calls "a pan-expert."

"They hardly ever say 'I don't know' to reporters' questions," Shafer says. "They field the questions like Derek Jeter and flip the answers over to first base on a tight line. Their stock rises as other journalists start to quote them because they've seen the expert's op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Washington Post or seen them quoted in news stories and on TV."

"It usually starts as a fluke," Shafer says. "The talking head writes an article that gets noticed, and he gets a phone call."

But those flukes are frequent, he says. "I think that any time there is a news crisis--9/11 or a cluster of sniper shootings--reporters and their editors become less discerning about who qualifies as a reliable source on a subject." In the case of the sniper, Shafer says criminologists "all missed him by a mile."

"But if another round of shootings go down," he says, "I fully expect the same 'experts' to be asked the same profiling questions about the new sniper. "

Shafer points out that reliance on experts pervades even media criticism, noting that WW Editor Mark Zusman, who suggested him as a source, is a friend. "How did I become an expert for this story?" he asks. "Because Mark knows me?"

PERLSTEIN QUOTABLES

On the four Muslims arrested in Portland Oct. 4:

"Assuming the FBI hasn't made a mistake, this shows that we are indeed in a shadow war, and we can assume there are more cells in the United States and probably in Portland."

--Portland Tribune, Oct. 8, 2002

On eco-terrorists:

"I think the public is going to realize they are not Robin Hoods any more than Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd were."

--The Oregonian, May 7, 2002

On terrorists:

"We need to understand these people completely. We need to look to locals for tips and hints and try to make sense of that."

--The Kansas City Star, Aug. 23, 1998

"People are fed up with the government."

--Associated Press, April 8, 1997, in story headlined
"Prosecutors Face Hurdles Going After Terrorists."

"I would look at these people as the most dangerous of killers. It's a different way of killing, because if you have a gun, a knife, or a club you have to face your killers. But with a bomb you take away the personal involvement."

--On bombers, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Sun-Sentinel, April 14, 1996


Gary Perlstein wrote a letter to The Oregonian opposing the cigarette tax hike, which he sees as a tax on the working class. Instead, he suggested a tax on espresso drinks.



Larry Johnson creates military counter-terrorism training exercises and runs a private anti- terrorism consulting firm.



Johnson says that at times reporters can "make you end up sounding like the brother of Jesus Christ. Sometimes it's the fault of people touting themselves as expert. And sometimes it's inflated by the media."



In July, Perlstein attended a Salem press conference that called for legislation to codify eco-terrorism within the law and to extend the statute of limitations for the prosecution of "eco- terror crimes."



In addition to his academic career, Kushner is a partner in a store that sells anti- terrorist safety gear.



Perlstein says he has no idea how Stop Eco Violence gets its funding: "If Nichols-Dezenhall were [funding SEV], I think I'd have a problem with it."



Stop Eco Violence is not required to release an annual report until May 2003 at the earliest. Executive Director Kelly Stoner says the nonprofit has raised about $20,000 from individuals and companies, though she declined to name them.



Perlstein says Al Mar, a Chinese- American knife designer and former sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces during the Kennedy era, introduced him to mercenaries. Perlstein carries a pocket knife Mar designed. He also holds a concealed- weapons permit.



Two other media critics were contacted for this story; Shafer was the first to respond.
 
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