Wrong Number

Cell phones to Osama? Maybe not.

The build-up to the September 11 anniversary is mercifully over. Houston media (including the Press) all localized the tragedy, getting reactions and stories from locals whose lives were touched by the day's events.

Houston, ever looking to be a player in the international scene, took additional steps to ensure it played an integral role in 9/11 news.

There was the flight that took off from Bush Intercontinental Airport on the anniversary day with two "suspicious-looking" Middle Eastern men who dared to wield a comb in flight, but the gutsy "Let's Roll!" attitude of the flight crew diverted the plane back to Bush (accompanied by plenty of "Breaking News" graphics). As a result of the newsy action, no passengers at all had their hair forcibly combed by the alleged terrorists.

Better yet was the Case of Osama's Cell Phones.

After a September 9 press conference at the Port of Houston, the Houston Chronicle and every TV station in town had stories about how the intrepid folks at the U.S. Customs Service had intercepted a shipment -- right here in Houston! -- of more than 1,000 cell phones being shipped to Al Qaeda operatives.

It all sounded a little strange -- the shipment had been confiscated in January, hardly making it fresh news; not to mention, of course, that it was hard to picture shipping invoices listing Al Qaeda headquarters as the billing address. But the story proved irresistible in the days before September 11.

It was, indeed, too good to be true.

A spokeswoman for the customs service took it all back on September 10, saying the number of phones was closer to 240. Oh, and…ummmm…there was no connection to Al Qaeda. Spokeswoman Judy Turner says the customs official who gave out the initial information "just misspoke."

That official, John Babb, was not available for comment. Babb, director of field operations in Houston for the customs service, was one of several officials appearing at a Port of Houston press conference September 9 to talk about security issues related to 9/11.

A reporter who attended the press conference says Babb had "finished his spiel," as had others, when the panel was asked for specifics about items that might have been seized as part of increased security measures.

Babb blurted out the news about the thousand cell phones destined for Al Qaeda, says the reporter, who prefers anonymity. He wouldn't or couldn't answer follow-up questions with any details, the reporter said; it was hard to tell if the refusal stemmed from a need for discretion or a lack of knowledge.

The blurted-out piece of information was the only news nugget out of the briefing, so naturally reporters led with it in their stories.

Turner called them the next day to "clarify" matters.

There's always the chance that Babb accidentally exposed a key operation, and the customs service had to backtrack in case bin Laden had been watching Dominique Sachse that night.

We may never know: "I cannot discuss anything that may involve an investigation -- that's customs service policy," Turner says.

View from the Coast

In the spirit of Channel 2 general manager Steve Wasserman, we are including here a guest viewpoint.

Wasserman always encourages those who oppose his editorials to contact the station; since his editorials tend to run along the lines of "Patriotism is heartwarming" or "Houstonians need to get ready for hurricane season," the number of guests tends to be slim.

And, truth be told, we can't really call what follows an opposing viewpoint. We're just glad to see our hometown paper get some big-league publicity.

T.J. Simers is an estimable, not to mention reliably acerbic, sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times. On September 10 he examined the NFL's continuing efforts to bring a team to L.A. (Headline: "In the Barnum Tradition, NFL Looking for Suckers.") As he usually does, he took a brief tangent midway to toss in a spare thought.

"After the [Houston] Texans won their first game," he wrote, "a sports columnist for the Houston Chronicle wrote: 'The Texans came out like old-time gunslingers, their six-shooters blazing, and served notice there was a new marshal in town.' Just think, if we had gotten the team instead of Houston, I could have written like that."

Simers can dream on. He didn't even mention the rest of that Fran Blinebury column, in which the game was described as feeling "Hotter than five-alarm chili. More fiery than a mouthful of jalapeños…It was tastier than a corny dog at the State Fair, the wildest ride since they shut down the mechanical bull at Gilley's."

Christ -- a Gilley's reference?

The West Coast may be laughing, but loyal -- or trapped -- Chronicle readers know they can only be thankful they didn't have to read something like "Houston, we don't have a problem!"

 
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