As all the world knows, Newsweek’s ace reporters Michael Isikoff and John Barry rushed to print with an unsubstantiated story about the alleged desecration of the Quran by interrogators at Guantanamo. This story has had lethal consequences. And no amount of apologizing will bring back to life those 15 or so Muslims killed in the ensuing protests.
Those who have worked with Newsweek in general, and Isikoff in particular, know that the magazine’s standards are not always quite this loose. Forensic economist Stephen Dresch learned this the hard way. In March of this year, Dresch had received highly convincing information from imprisoned mobster Gregory Scarpa Jr. that a cache of explosives remained hidden in the old house of his jailmate, Terry Nichols of Oklahoma City notoriety.
For four frustrating weeks, Dresch could not get the FBI or the media interested in the story. Even after the FBI finally heeded Dresch’s warning and extracted the explosives on March 31 – conveniently, hours after the death of Terry Schiavo – Isikoff turned a deaf ear to the story. “Isikov [sic] essentially contended that I had to prove to him that the FBI’s recovery of the cache in Herington, KS, was a result of the Scarpa intelligence,” Dresch wrote to me on April 5.
“To add insult to injury,” Dresch continued, “Isikoff demanded that I identify my intel-org-security colleague and his NSC and DHS conduits. In short, I’ve rarely dealt with such a pompous, ludicrous a–hole (if you will excuse my Mongolian).”
This week, Dresch learned just how flexible Isikoff’s standards were. Isikoff and Newsweek had inflamed the Middle East with a reckless bit of anti-American agitprop that had but one unnamed, uncertain source.
“You had named sources who had provided the Scarpa-Nichols intelligence re the Herington explosives cache to the FBI on 1 March 2005,” Dresch wrote to Isikoff on May 17. “You had a “confidential source” who had passed this intelligence to the National Security Council and to the Department of Homeland Security on 22 March 2005, while the FBI failed to act until 31 March-1 April 2005. Yet, you refused to publish anything related to this because you couldn’t get anyone in the FBI (the compromised agency) to confirm this. Even if this saga had been untrue (which it was not), no one would have died as a result of its publication.”
Two years ago, I had had my own close encounter with Isikoff and Newsweek, and it was as unpleasant as Dresch’s I met with Isikoff and his British colleague, Mark Hosenball, in Newsweek’s Washington offices to interest them in the TWA Flight 800 story chronicled in the book Jim Sanders and I had just written called “First Strike.”
Newsweek had much to be unpleasant about. It was Newsweek, after all, that had penned the media’s most stirring defense of the CIA’s now notorious animation, the one that depicts the transformation of a noseless jumbo jet into a soaring rocket, an animation that instantly discredited all eyewitness testimony and ended any real investigation into the plane’s destruction.
The Newsweek piece, dated Dec. 1, 1997, uses a series of nine full-color “CIA PHOTOS” to make the CIA case. The photos show TWA Flight 800’s flaming passenger cabin climbing more than 3,000 feet to 17,000 feet, “creating the streak many witnesses mistake for a missile.”
When I asked how Newsweek could have relied on the CIA for such crucial information, Hosenball replied that certain unnamed Boeing executives had also assured him that the Boeing 747 fuel tank was a veritable accident waiting to happen. What executives? One has to wonder why any executive anywhere would make such incriminating statements to a Newsweek reporter.
Besides, when the CIA animation was first shown, Boeing had publicly dismissed it. “Boeing was not involved in the production of the video shown today, nor have we had the opportunity to obtain a copy or fully understand the data used to create it,” said the company in its immediate response to the animation. “The video’s explanation of the eyewitness observations can be best assessed by the eyewitnesses themselves.”
How did the eyewitnesses feel about the CIA animation? “That’s what I call the cartoon,” said helicopter pilot Maj. Fritz Meyer, “It was totally ludicrous. When that airplane blew up it immediately began falling. It came right out of the sky. From the first moment, it was going down.” Meyer’s perspective was the norm. Not one of the 750 official FBI witnesses had reported seeing the plane ascend after the explosion.
Making little headway, I asked Isikoff to read “First Strike.” He scoffed, “Which three pages?”
“Considering that this is the most important untold story of our time,” I answered, “how about a chapter?”
“Which three pages?” he countered dismissively.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of missile fire and CIA deception, Isikoff informed me that Newsweek was not about to recant. When I asked him what level of proof would be needed to change his mind, he suggested, only half-kidding, that I would have to bring in the guy who pulled the trigger.
Yes, in the protection of a certain legacy, the Newsweek standards could be very high indeed.