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CBS'S Defective Defector

60 Minutes adopts Internet news standards.


Posted Thursday, June 15, 2000

        On June 4, CBS's 60 Minutes broadcast a seemingly headline-making report about an Iranian defector who, the show said, claims to have been "the czar of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism for more than a decade"--and who says "it was Iran, not Libya, that planned and directed the blowing up of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland." Correspondent Lesley Stahl reported that the defector also "told us he has evidence that Iran carried out the blowing up of Khobar Towers, the U.S. military housing complex in Saudi Arabia in which 19 American GIs were killed."

        A week later, CBS's story was discredited in a Washington Post piece headlined "Iranian Defector Claiming Terrorist Links Is Called an Impostor." The Post's Vernon Loeb wrote that, after debriefing the defector, "counterterrorist experts from the CIA and the FBI have concluded that he is not Ahmad Behbahani"--the man he claimed to be. Loeb quoted a "senior U.S. official" as saying the defector "has been lying about lots of stuff." The unnamed official also said: "He knows a few things. ... But when it comes to serious stuff he should know, he comes up empty." Loeb's story got big play on the Drudge Report and was picked up by the Associated Press and the New York Times.

        So much for the CBS's big scoop, right? That's the way it appeared. But if you tuned in to the CBS Evening News last Monday, you heard Dan Rather issue this "update":

After several debriefings of the defector, the CIA and the FBI have now concluded that while he probably did work for Iranian intelligence, he was not as high up in the chain of command as he claimed.
If the guy was an impostor, that seemed like a pretty pathetic correction. Kausfiles called 60 Minutes spokesman Kevin Tedesco and discovered that the network is indeed clinging to its scoop. "The jury is still out on this," Tedesco told me. But, I point out, the Post reported that the FBI and CIA think the defector isn't who he says he is, not just that he wasn't "as high up" in the chain of command. That's not what the government tells CBS, Tedesco claimed. "They've got their sources; we've got ours." I called Loeb, who stood by his story: "I don't believe senior U.S. officials believe the jury is still out."

        Why, I wondered, didn't those officials just put CBS out of its misery by calling a press conference and declaring the defector a phony? I called around and soon found myself talking on background to a "U.S. official" who seemed reasonably well informed. He had a slew of anti-CBS sound bites, saying of the defector's debriefing that "if he were a contestant on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, he would have muffed the $100 question." The defector "didn't have the position he represented himself as having" and "didn't have the access he says he had."

        This "U.S. official" even said, of Lockerbie and Khobar, that the defector "didn't have credible information that would point to Iranian involvement in those terrorist incidents." And the official called CBS "reckless and irresponsible." But note that this official did not say that the man was an impostor and not Ahmad Behbahani. And he showed no inclination to call a press conference to denounce the defector. Apparently that's just not done in the defector biz.

        This doesn't mean Loeb wasn't right--he talked to a "senior U.S. official" and I talked to a mere "U.S. official." Loeb undoubtedly has better intelligence sources than kausfiles. And CBS's correction is still pretty pathetic--if the man wasn't "as high up in the chain of command as he claimed," doesn't that mean he wasn't the "czar of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism, for more than a decade," which was half of the first sentence in Lesley Stahl's report? And doesn't that lie call into question everything else the defector said, and that CBS broadcast, about Lockerbie, et al.?

        CBS can always claim that the Clinton administration just doesn't want to admit Iran's complicity in the bombings because that would complicate a hoped-for rapprochement with Iran (as well as disrupt the trial of two Libyans in the Lockerbie case). CBS's Tedesco contends the story is "politically charged," and "it all should be looked at through a political prism." But Loeb doesn't buy that explanation. The CIA is "sufficiently spun-up about terrorism that they would call a spade a spade on this guy's story. If he was who he was claiming to be, they would say so." To not do that, because of diplomatic or political pressure, "would be one of the great intelligence scandals of our age." Loeb notes that CIA chief George Tenet recently went out of his way to publicly finger Iran as a major sponsor of terrorism, something he presumably wouldn't do if his agency was toeing some administration line on rapprochement.

        Beats me what the ultimate truth is here, though I wouldn't bet a lot of money on CBS. What's clear is that 60 Minutes applied a nontraditional journalistic standard to this story. "We have every reason to believe," Tedesco told the Post, "that what [the defector's] saying could be true." Emphasis on "could." If it could be true, go with it! Print all possible truths, even minimally credible allegations--assuming they're non-libelous--and the actual truth will win out!

        That's a defensible standard. (If you came to me with the defector's story, and I couldn't confirm it, would I print it? You bet--though I wouldn't give it the ridiculous prominence CBS did.) It's also a familiar standard, even though it's nontraditional. Recognize it? It's the standard of the Internet. Only now it's also the standard of CBS News.

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