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Newsweek Finds Bad Stories Aren't Equal

By Robert Parry
May 18, 2005

Newsweek is the latest U.S. news outlet to be slapped into the stocks for sloppy journalism, pelted with criticism for a story alleging American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay flushed a Koran down a toilet. But the case also underscores the fact that some stories are politically riskier than others – especially if they upset the Bushes.

Newsweek certainly has engaged in bad journalism before, though perhaps not to this level of notoriety. In the late 1980s, when I worked there, I often witnessed senior editors getting excited about some hot story and brushing aside doubts from reporters.

In the Koran story, it’s not clear whether the reporters – Michael Isikoff and John Barry – showed insufficient care or whether their editors rushed an incomplete item into the Periscope section as a scoop that might create some buzz. Instead it sparked bloody anti-American riots across the Muslim world and led to a humiliating retraction.

But possibly a more dangerous consequence of the story is that it will reinforce the growing perception in Washington journalism that the fastest way to ruin your career is to write something that gets you on the wrong side of George W. Bush and his administration. That means there could be even less critical reporting about the War on Terror and the Iraq War. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Bush Rule of Journalism.”]

Arguably the gullible U.S. reporting about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction in 2002-03 contributed to more death and destruction than the Koran story did, including more than 1,600 dead American soldiers. But no one news organization has faced the condemnation that Newsweek has for its mistake.

Already some right-wing media critics are citing the Newsweek case as proof of dishonest “liberal” journalism, even though top Newsweek editors often have sided with conservative or neoconservative foreign policy agendas. They certainly did during my three years at the magazine when Editor Maynard Parker regularly lined up with Reagan-Bush policymakers.

Disinformation

Indeed, over the past three decades, Newsweek seems to have served as a vehicle of choice for planting stories favored by the national security establishment, including disinformation to sabotage political enemies or to frustrate troublesome investigations.

For instance, in 1976, Newsweek carried a false story from the CIA, clearing the government of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet of responsibility for a terrorist attack on Massachusetts Avenue in the heart of Washington’s Embassy Row.

On Sept. 21, 1976, Chilean intelligence operatives, working with anti-Castro Cuban exiles, had detonated a bomb under the car of former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier, killing him and an American co-worker, Ronni Moffitt.

The act of terrorism put George H.W. Bush on the spot because as CIA director, he had missed signals of the impending attack, including attempts by the Chilean assassins to use a supposed visit to Bush’s CIA deputy as a cover for the operation. Quick action by Bush’s CIA likely would have prevented the murders.

After the killings, Bush’s CIA seemed more interested in protecting Pinochet’s regime than helping the FBI solve the double homicide. The spy agency withheld evidence, including the lead assassin’s travel documents and photograph, and threw its weight behind the false denials of guilt from Pinochet’s regime.

The CIA leaked an item to Newsweek, which reported in its Oct. 11, 1976, issue that “the Chilean secret police were not involved. …. The [Central Intelligence] agency reached its decision because the bomb was too crude to be the work of experts and because the murder, coming while Chile’s rulers were wooing U.S. support, could only damage the Santiago regime.”

The Newsweek story turned out to be wrong. But even a dozen years later, Newsweek wasn’t ready to come clean about its error.

Stonewall

When Bush was running for President in 1988 – and citing his CIA experience on his resumé – I prepared a story for Newsweek that reexamined Bush’s handling of the Letelier case. I interviewed federal prosecutor Eugene Propper, who had eventually solved the murders, pinning the blame on Chilean government operatives despite the CIA’s stonewalling.

“Nothing the agency gave us helped us break this case,” Propper told me.

When I submitted questions to Bush in 1988 – while he was Vice President – Bush’s chief of staff Craig Fuller responded that Bush “will have no comment on the specific issues raised in your letter.”

Though my finished article contained new information about the CIA’s relationship with Manuel Contreras, Chile’s intelligence chief and a key Letelier murder suspect, Maynard Parker and other Newsweek editors killed the story. I was told that Parker made some disparaging comment about me being “out to get” Bush. (I left Newsweek in 1990. Parker died in 1998.)

The senior George Bush, of course, went on to win the Presidency. As for Pinochet, Bush didn’t appear to hold a grudge against this foreign leader who had sponsored a terrorist attack under the nose of the U.S. government at a time when Bush was in charge of the U.S. intelligence services.

In 1998, when Pinochet was detained in Great Britain on an extradition request from Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon, who was pursuing Pinochet for his role in killing Spanish citizens, one of the world leaders who rallied to Pinochet’s defense was George H.W. Bush. He called the case against Pinochet “a travesty of justice” and urged that Pinochet be sent home to Chile “as soon as possible.” Great Britain did just that.

[For more details on the Letelier case, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

Protecting Bush

Newsweek also protected the elder George Bush in 1991 when the Reagan-Bush campaign of 1980 was facing investigation into its alleged secret contacts with Iranian representatives at a time when 52 Americans were being held hostage and President Jimmy Carter was desperately seeking their release.

In 1991, when this so-called October Surprise case finally faced the possibility of an official investigation, Newsweek joined the New Republic in denouncing the allegations as a myth. The twin “debunkings” were largely based on a complex set of alibis constructed for Reagan’s campaign chief, the late William J. Casey.

But the two debunking articles were built like a house of cards, with the alibis forming a foundation that then discredited the key witnesses as liars, thus justifying the ridicule of investigators who wanted to examine the issue more deeply.

Both magazines concluded that Casey could not have attended two days of secret meetings in Madrid in late July 1980 – as described by Iranian businessman Jamshid Hashemi – because Casey’s schedule supposedly didn’t have a two-day “window.”

The reasoning went as follows: Jamshid Hashemi recalled that the Madrid meetings took place on two consecutive mornings. ABC News’ “Nightline,” which had given the October Surprise allegations a respectful treatment, reported that a Hashemi alias was registered at Madrid’s Plaza Hotel starting Friday, July 25, 1980.

Casey’s secretary, Barbara Hayward, told “Nightline” that her calendar put Casey in Washington on Saturday, July 26. It was later discovered that Casey gave a speech at a historical conference in London on the morning of July 29, a Tuesday, and he had returned to Washington by July 30, a Wednesday. So, the logic went, the Madrid meetings must have occurred on Sunday, July 27, and Monday, July 28.

But the New Republic and Newsweek argued that Casey could not have been in Madrid for meetings that covered those two mornings because he arrived in London on Sunday night, July 27, and was at the historical conference on the morning of July 28.

“Casey’s whereabouts are convincingly established by contemporary records at the Imperial War Museum in London,” declared Newsweek in an article co-authored by John Barry, who also participated in the Koran story in 2005. [Newsweek, Nov. 11, 1991]

Newsweek and the New Republic both splashed their findings on their covers – and the articles left no doubt about the conclusions: There had been no October Surprise contacts between Casey and the Iranians. The allegations were a “myth.” The witnesses were liars. The October Surprise story was “a conspiracy theory run wild.” Republicans in Congress quickly seized on the findings to argue that no official investigation was needed.

‘Dishonest Thing’

One cannot overstate the significance of these two articles in eviscerating chances for any serious investigation of the October Surprise case. But how good were the debunkings? Did the records in London prove that Jamshid Hashemi lied about the meeting between Casey and Iranian cleric Mehdi Karrubi?

Inside Newsweek, reporter Craig Unger had disagreed with the magazine’s October Surprise story, specifically with the decision to frame the late July 1980 “window” for the Madrid meeting by using the dates July 27 to 29.

Unger complained that the magazine did not check how reliable the calendar entry of Casey’s secretary was, supposedly showing Casey in Washington on July 26. “They knew the window was not real,” Unger later told me.

The same calendar, for example, had failed to show any Casey trip to Europe or the London conference that Casey had attended. So why should one presume that the secretary’s notation was correct for July 26, Unger reasoned.

“It was the most dishonest thing that I’ve been through in my life in journalism,” Unger said in 1992, when he had been in journalism for 20 years.

After the “myth” cover story, Unger left Newsweek and was promptly denigrated by Newsweek editors as an “October Surprise true-believer.” (Unger’s suspicions about the reliability of the secretary’s calendar would be borne out when a House task force investigation uncovered documentary evidence that Casey had left Washington a day earlier, on July 25.)

But even accepting the “window” as framed by the two magazines, how reliable was their interpretation of the key records at the London historical conference? The debunking rested on attendance charts maintained by Jonathan Chadwick, the Imperial War Museum’s director.

Chadwick interpreted his complex system for recording attendance – with checks and x’s in pencil and ink – as showing that Casey attended the morning session that Monday, left for several hours over lunch and then returned late in the afternoon. There was a notation in the afternoon box for Casey that read: “came at 4 p.m.”

Newsweek and the New Republic concluded that the several hours for the long lunch would not give Casey enough time to fly to Madrid and return. So it was their certainty that Casey had attended the Monday morning session that was crucial to the October Surprise debunkings.

Debunked Debunkings

When I interviewed Chadwick for a PBS “Frontline” documentary, he repeated his belief that his checks and x’s indicated that Casey had arrived by Monday morning. But he acknowledged that his memory was not as precise as he was leading people to believe.

“My recollection – and all recollections – are inherently unreliable eleven years later,” he said. “But my recollection is that on that morning of 28th of July, Casey arrived with the other Americans, in a sort of bunch.”

But other Americans in the “bunch” were saying Casey wasn’t among them. “Frontline” located one American participant who had a particularly clear memory of that Monday morning – renowned historian Robert Dallek.

“I was on the program the first morning, that Monday morning,” Dallek told me. “And I have a very strong memory of not seeing Mr. Casey at the conference that morning, because I was giving my talk at 11:30 in the morning and I looked for him in the room. I remember looking for him in the room. I knew he was a prominent figure. I was interested to know whether he was going to be there or not.”

Dallek said Casey did not arrive until late that first day. “I remember meeting him late that afternoon, because we walked around the Imperial War Museum together,” Dallek said. Later, Chadwick admitted that he might well have misinterpreted his charts.

In other words, the alibi at the center of the Newsweek’s debunking of the October Surprise case had collapsed. Despite the serious error, Newsweek never ran a correction. Since very few people in Washington knew that the alibi that underpinned the debunking had proven false, the October Surprise case remained a nearly untouchable subject. [For more details, see Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Passport Search

Newsweek carried the Bush family’s water again in 1992 when George H.W. Bush’s reelection campaign was looking for some way to sink Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. Bush and his campaign hierarchy grew excited about a rumor that Clinton had tried to renounce his citizenship during the Vietnam War.

Eventually, this high-level White House interest was communicated to State Department official Elizabeth Tamposi, a Bush political appointee who agreed to order a search of Clinton’s passport files, looking for the supposed letter renouncing citizenship.

On the night of Sept. 30, 1992, Tamposi dispatched three aides to the federal records center in Suitland, Maryland. They searched Clinton’s passport file as well as his mother’s.

But the search found no letter renouncing citizenship. All the State Department officials discovered was a passport application with staple holes and a slight tear in the corner.

Though the tear was easily explained by the routine practice of stapling a photo, money order or routing slip to the application, Tamposi seized on the ripped page to justify a new suspicion, that a Clinton ally at the State Department had removed the renunciation letter. Tamposi shaped that speculation into a criminal referral which was forwarded to the Justice Department.

Thin as the case was, the Bush reelection effort now had its official action so the renunciation rumor could be turned into a public issue. Within hours of the criminal referral, someone from the Bush camp leaked word about the confidential FBI investigation to reporters at Newsweek magazine.

The Newsweek story about the tampering investigation hit the newsstands on Oct. 4, 1992. The article suggested that a Clinton backer might have removed incriminating material from Clinton’s passport file, precisely the spin that the Bush people wanted.

Press Frenzy

Immediately, Bush took the offensive, using the press frenzy over the tampering story to attack Clinton’s patriotism on a variety of fronts, including his student trip to Moscow in 1970. With his patriotism challenged, Clinton saw his once-formidable lead shrink.

The story created an opportunity for both the conservative and mainstream media to reprise other questions about Clinton’s draft avoidance and other “character” issues. Indeed, the passport story and the related suspicions about Clinton’s patriotism might have doomed Clinton’s election, except that Spencer Oliver, chief counsel for the House International Affairs Committee, smelled a rat.

“In Newsweek, there was this little story – two paragraphs – that there were rumors about damaging information in Clinton’s passport file,” Oliver told me. “I said you can’t go into someone’s passport file. That’s a violation of the law, only in pursuit of a criminal indictment or something. But without his permission, you can’t examine his passport file. It’s a violation of the Privacy Act.”

After consulting with House committee chairman Dante Fascell and a colleague on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Oliver sent a couple of investigators to the National Archives warehouse in Suitland, Maryland. They discovered the extraordinary night-time search of Clinton’s passport file.

Oliver’s assistants also found that the administration’s criminal referral rested on a very weak premise, the staple holes. The discovery of what looked like a dirty trick soon found its way into the Washington Post. Although the passport gambit backfired on the Bush campaign, Newsweek had appeared to let itself be used in a smear campaign.

Bush Comments

In an unpublished interview with federal investigators who later examined possible crimes connected to the passport search, the senior George Bush acknowledged “nagging” his aides to press the investigation into Clinton’s student travels to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Bush also expressed strong interest in rumors that Clinton had sought to renounce his U.S. citizenship.

Bush described himself as “indignant” that his aides failed to discover more about Clinton’s student activities. But Bush stopped short of taking responsibility for the apparently illegal searches of Clinton’s records.

“Hypothetically speaking, President Bush advised that he would not have directed anyone to investigate the possibility that Clinton had renounced his citizenship because he would have relied on others to make this decision,” the FBI interview report read. “He [Bush] would have said something like, ‘Let’s get it out’ or ‘Hope the truth gets out.’”

Thus, the botched story about the Koran fits with a longstanding pattern of Newsweek rushing to journalistic judgments that later turn out to be wrong or misleading. Certainly, Newsweek’s reliance on a single source to assert an allegation as serious as U.S. military interrogators defiling a religious object falls short of responsible journalism.

But perhaps a more significant difference between this case and other examples of the magazine’s sloppy journalism is that this one put Newsweek on the Bush family’s bad side. [For Newsweek’s explanation of its Koran article, click here. For the retraction, click here.]


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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