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