Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of MediaBloodhound reports covering the Alexis Debat ABC News scandal. The first two are here and here. Glenn Greenwald's exhaustive work back in April proved invaluable to this post.
In late October 2001, Brian Ross and ABC News reported on a major “scoop” for days: a link between Saddam Hussein and the anthrax attacks. The implications and impact of this highly touted story were clear. Some members of the Bush White House and their neocon minions were already seeking to tie Saddam to 9/11 as a pretense for attacking Iraq. In Michael Isikoff and David Corn's Hubris, one administration official recalled the giddy scene among the Iraq hawks in the White House when ABC’s story first broke. Still gripped by acute fear and grief, the American public was primed to embrace this news, and many Beltway pundits, even "liberals," jumped at the chance to stir the hysteria.
The reports, however, turned out to be completely false.
Now, while no news organization or individual journalist can, or should, be held to a standard of infallibility, ABC News, six years later, appeared to have never issued a valid correction to its audience (though it said it had) or retract any of its Saddam-anthrax stories. Moreover, in view of the Alexis Debat scandal, a critical unanswered question surfaced: Was Debat used as a source on these stories?
I contacted ABC News senior vice president and spokesman Jeffrey Schneider, first via email and then by phone, in an effort to get clarification on these two issues.
First, here’s the meat of our email exchange (though it adds much length, I opted not to summarize these emails because they reveal many things to which I can't do justice in summation):
October 2, 2007
Dear Mr. Schneider,
It's come to my attention that Alexis Debat was already working with, or for, ABC News at the time Brian Ross and his investigative unit broke and began reporting on the Saddam-anthrax story in October/November 2001. Any linkage between Saddam and the anthrax mailed to Senator Daschle, as I'm sure you're aware, later proved to be unfounded. Just a couple of questions I'm hoping you can clear up for me:
1) Can you please confirm whether Alexis Debat was a source for ABC News on the Saddam-anthrax reports?
2) To date, has ABC News issued a correction for this story? If not, why?
FYI, here's one of the earliest of these reports (from your website):
Thank you in advance for addressing these questions.
October 2, 2007
Thanks for your questions. Debat had nothing whatever to do with the anthrax report you reference. And we did correct that reporting in subsequent stories.
Jeffrey W. Schneider
SVP, ABC News
October 3, 2007
Thanks for your answers. But a bit more clarification would be appreciated.
First, on the issue of a correction, I've researched and found no evidence that ABC News ever issued a correction to its audience, or, for that matter, retracted any of its Saddam-anthrax stories. (This seems to be supported by the fact that you still have at least some of those original stories on your website, such as the one I included in my previous email, and that these stories are still being cited by other news outlets to this day.) In your claim to have issued a correction, I'll assume you're not referring to Brian Ross' acknowledgment that the White House "denied any bentonite was found in the anthrax." I'll also assume you're not referring to your admission to Salon's Glenn Greenwald that "our original report was indeed wrong." Of course, the former is not a correction, but merely an acknowledgment of White House disagreement with ABC News' findings; and the latter, though a confirmation of error, was not issued to ABC News' audience, which would be necessary to actually constitute a correction.
For the sake of accuracy, then, if ABC News issued a correction to its audience about its Saddam-anthrax stories, as you maintain, could you please direct me to where I might find this. I'm sure you'd like to clear this up, too, and I would think evidence of this should be easy to locate on your part. So thanks for that.
Second, on the issue of any involvement of Alexis Debat as a source in the Saddam-anthrax stories, I suppose I have no other choice but to, at least on the surface, take your word. Unfortunately, with all due respect to your inside information on this, I don't feel I would be doing due diligence to accept your response on its face. Because a) ABC News never revealed even the smallest detail about those "four separate well-placed sources" used in its Saddam-anthrax stories, such as what their positions, affiliations, or even vocations were (even after the information they supplied proved to be wrong), and b) considering ABC News' use of Debat as a source for just such stories and that such a revelation might be further damaging in the wake of the Debat affair, I'm sure you could understand why I might - and in an effort to cover this responsibly, why I should - question your response.
If there is some way to back up your claim that Debat had, as you say, "nothing whatever to do" with ABC News' Saddam-anthrax stories (i.e., he was not used as a source in them), that would be most helpful in removing any cloud of doubt concerning his involvement. May I suggest that acknowledging either the positions, affiliations or vocations of those "four separate well-placed sources" might go a long way in removing suspicion of Debat's involvement. Though if there is some other evidence you'd like to present, I would be very interested as well.
Please note that my intention here is not to assail your honesty or accuracy in this matter. Rather, considering ABC News' track record over the last six years in light of the Debat affair, I'm merely attempting to do due diligence and get the facts straight.
Thanks again for addressing these questions.
October 3, 2007
Mr Jacobson - ABC News corrected our October 26 story on November 1, 2001 when Brian Ross said the following on World News Tonight to Peter Jennings: "today the White House said despite initial test results which we reported suggesting the presence of a chemical called bentonite, a trademark of the Iraqi weapons program, a further chemical analysis has ruled that out." It is important to remember that our initial reporting reflected what numerous sources were telling us about the anthrax investigation at that moment (October 26, 2001) in time. As the story evolved, and it became clear that bentonite was not found, we made that important fact clear to our audience. As for Debat, he had no involvement in that reporting. He was not a source for that report. Thanks.
October 4, 2007
Mr. Schneider - The truth is, Ross not only failed to issue a valid correction with this line - at no time (as you readily admit) did he say ABC News' original reports and sources were wrong about the bentonite being present - but, what's worse, he misled your audience when he suggested the White House had conceded previously that ABC News' original findings were valid. As you know, and as Ross mentioned multiple times prior to his Nov. 1 report, the White House, from the beginning, insisted that ABC News' original reports were wrong, and at no time did it ever waver in its statements.
In fact, as then White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said at the time: "If ABC's sources are so good, perhaps they'd like to come out and identify themselves and share the information they have, just as Gen. Parker [Army Maj. Gen. John Parker, who ran the investigation], and the White House have done. It's easier to be an anonymous source floating allegations than be an on-the-record source sharing information and taking questions."
So, for the record (unless you've yet to divulge information proving otherwise), it's clear that ABC News never issued a valid correction to its audience; moreover, further muddling the facts, Ross misled your viewers on Nov. 1 by implying the White House had at some point given credence to ABC News' initial reports about bentonite being present.
Fleischer's comments lead me to the question you haven't addressed beyond a surface denial: Did ABC News use Alexis Debat as a source in its Saddam-anthrax stories? I requested from you some kind of proof that he wasn't involved. And I suggested that a simple way to remove the cloud of suspicion surrounding Debat's potential involvement would be to at least divulge the most minimal of attributions to your "four separate well-placed sources," such as positions, affiliations, or even vocations. Though I also welcomed any other evidence you might have wanted to present.
So, for the record, it's clear you either have no evidence proving that Debat wasn't involved - i.e. used as a source - for ABC News' Saddam-anthrax reports, or you've chosen to withhold any such evidence. I'd also like to reiterate that requesting proof of this on my part is no reflection on your honesty or accuracy, but rather, considering ABC News' track record for the last six years in light of the Debat affair (not to mention its current refusal to allow for an outside investigation of the matter), it's the only responsible way I can confirm to my readers that Mr. Debat wasn't involved.
I welcome any further clarifications with regard to these two issues. And, once again, thank you for addressing them.
Our conversation then continued over the phone.
On the question of issuing a correction, Schneider maintained that Brian Ross’ words to Peter Jennings on Nov. 1, 2001 constituted a correction. I reiterated my point (previously made by Glenn Greenwald back in April) that what Ross said not only shouldn't be considered a valid correction but, making matters worse, actually gave the false impression the White House had concurred at some point with ABC’s initial reports. But Schneider refused to concede this. (Incidentally, to this day, you can still find the story on ABC’s website, sans an accompanying editor’s note or annotation to alert the reader it’s false. It remains there, misinforming those who come across it and enabling others who wish to use it to continue propagating the lie of Saddam/9-11.)
On the question of Debat’s potential involvement in the Saddam-anthrax stories, Schneider remained adamant in his prior position - Debat wasn’t used as a source and wasn’t in any way involved in the investigation. Pressed further, Schneider did confirm that Debat had yet to be hired by ABC News at the time; Debat began officially working for ABC on Nov. 13, 2001. Though it’s important to note Debat did work with ABC News prior to that date, starting in early October of the same year. Schneider was quick to point out, however, that Debat was only called upon as an outside analyst during this period and never used as a source for any story.
But following our conversation, I found an Oct. 4, 2001 story for Primetime titled “How Hijackers May Have Communicated” on ABC News’ website. The report, filed by Brian Ross, appears to have definitely used Debat as source (in this case a fully attributed one; though, of course, we know now that attribution, “former French defense official,” was false):
And French investigators believe that suspects arrested in an alleged plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris were to get the go-ahead for the attack via a message hidden in a picture posted on the Internet, former French defense official Alexis Debat told ABCNEWS.
One of the men in custody, described by French officials as a computer nerd well-versed in the messaging technique, was captured with a notebook full of secret codes.
"This code book is major breakthrough in the investigation," said Debat.
Clearly, Debat’s role on this story - a report issued prior to his official start date of employment at ABC News – is not as an outside analyst; rather, outside of ABC's 401(k) and Dental, he’s passing on vital inside information to ABC News, apparently as a source close to the French investigation.
In regard to the same topic of Debat’s possible involvement in the Saddam-anthrax stories, Schneider also later said it was “my understanding” that he was not involved. When I asked him to clarify this slight but significant alteration of his prior blanket denials, he said, “The people who worked on that story told me he had nothing to do with it."
I don’t think I’m splitting hairs here to suggest that “Debat had nothing whatever to do with the anthrax report” is not quite the same as this is “my understanding” and "The people who worked on that story told me he had nothing to do with it." The former, if accurate, asserts Schneider is relaying firsthand knowledge; the latter betrays this. So, for example, what Schneider is telling me about Debat's involvement might very well be the truth - to the extent he is aware.
Let me remind you: to date, ABC News has brushed off the notion of an outside investigation into the Alexis Debat affair. Big media being a curious mix of journalism, business, entertainment and politics, a mere internal investigation begs the question: what would ABC News have to gain by revealing anything - or, more specifically, many things - that might portray it in a poor light?
If ever there was an example of why an outside investigation should be occurring over the Alexis Debat scandal, this is it.
And it dovetails with our further conversation about sourcing.
As I noted earlier, even applying minimal attributions to those wholly anonymous sources could largely remove suspicion of Debat’s involvement in the Saddam-anthrax stories (if he, in fact, was not involved). Yet Schneider maintains that any attribution, however minor, would’ve put those sources in jeopardy. But it seems a stretch that this is what's driving ABC to still refuse to further quantify these sources today.
First, especially in light of the Debat affair, why wouldn’t ABC News want to do everything in its power to staunch any doubt as to his potential involvement in the Saddam-anthrax stories? It makes no sense how the most minimal of attributions – say, “an expert in biochemistry” or “a White House source,” just enough to make clear Debat was not among those sources - would jeopardize anyone, specifically at this late date.
Moreover, as Greenwald pointed out, if these source were so wrong, which Schneider admitted then and now - if they were lousy sources, if they passed on highly inaccurate information, potentially with the goal of both misleading ABC News and convincing the American public an attack on Iraq was warranted – shouldn’t that be sufficient to modify, at least within reason (i.e. with the sole intent of getting at the truth), ABC’s prior oath to attribute only full anonymity?
In other words, why does ABC News, as demonstrated with this story and others - you might recall the big “scoop” about Iran having a nuclear bomb by 2009 (another wholly anonymously sourced story later proven to be false, which ABC has neither corrected nor retracted) - seem more beholden in such cases to confirmed bogus sources than it does to revealing the truth to its audience?
In hindsight, one would be foolish not to consider the possibility that one or more of these sources had reason to foist such faulty information onto ABC News. After all, the trumpeting of another set of specious data is, of course, what sold Americans the war in Iraq. The burden in this case, then (and other similar cases at the news network), should be on ABC to responsibly reveal more information about its sources, enough so its audience can better assess why the story went so wrong.
I went round and round with Schneider on this point. And though he listened patiently, he wouldn’t directly or substantively address it beyond stating a) the sources in question would be jeopardized, b) ABC News has a long history of solid reporting and its audience has come to trust it to make such difficult internal decisions (i.e. on sourcing) and c) ABC News’ official approach to sourcing, which is as follows (I requested this from him in writing):
Our default position is to identify sources on the record by name and occupation. In some cases, when identifying a source by name could potentially endanger the source we withhold the name but ID their position and/or rank to give the audience context about where the source is coming from (i.e. a top US Government Official, a senior European intelligence official). In rare cases, we grant anonymity to sources (i.e. a source told ABC News) when identifying the source in any way could be a threat to their actual safety or position. Granting anonymity is a serious decision that we don't make lightly and must be approved by top news executives who know exactly who the source is and what they are saying. In other words, our reporters cannot simply grant blanket anonymity without approval and justification.
Finally, regarding Schneider’s comment about ABC News’ long history of reliable reporting and earned trust among its audience, I argued its penchant (at least over the last six years) for failing to air prominent corrections and granting sources full anonymity on stories of such impact - which influence whether nations go to war (or, rather, are invaded or attacked) – damages ABC News’ credibility and puts into question its entire news organization.
As evidence of other less than stellar reporting by ABC News, I also brought up its recent coverage of the Democratic presidential debate, during which, among other offenses, ABC cropped a presidential candidate out of the default Associated Press photo on its website, lied about it, disappeared it and then acted as if nothing improper ever occurred. Schneider chalked this incident up to ABC News' executive director of media relations, Andrea Jones, making “a mistake.” But even if Jones is granted the benefit of the doubt - that she somehow unwittingly passed on this false information and wasn't involved in an internal effort to cover the network's tracks, to date, ABC News (just as with the aforementioned stories) has never issued a correction to its viewers. None. Not to mention, as is due in this case, a public apology to Congressman Kucinich to go along with that missing correction.
That is a mistake. One ABC News appears comfortable with making over and over again on stories that greatly impact the lives of American citizens and millions of people throughout the world.