The very first sentence of this Politico story — titled “Exclusive: FBI probed GOP trip with drinking, nudity in Israel” — helps explain why it has racked up 1,400 comments and 6,000 “likes” on Facebook:
The FBI probed a late-night swim in the Sea of Galilee that involved drinking, numerous GOP freshmen lawmakers, top leadership staff — and one nude member of Congress, according to more than a dozen sources, including eyewitnesses.
Now there’s something — the FBI investigating skinny-dipping!
The person familiar with the investigation said the FBI came across details of the swimming incident while examining the Israel trip and a trip [New York] Rep. [Michael] Grimm made afterward to Cyprus, but that the swimming incident wasn’t relevant to the probe.
Numerous congressional ethics-law experts interviewed Monday said the FBI does not care if lawmakers swim naked and that the investigation must be a matter under the agency’s jurisdiction. “Last time I checked, skinny dipping anywhere, including a foreign country, is not a federal crime,” said Jan Baran, head of the election law group at Wiley Rein LLP.
Yet the Politico story yielded the clear impression that the swimming was an investigative target.
At the center of the story is an August 2011 trip to Israel by several Republican lawmakers and staffers. After a hot day and a dinner and drinks, several people in the delegation took a dip in the Sea of Galilee. Politico reporters Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan get all breathlessly investigative in describing the motives for refreshment:
Many of the lawmakers who ventured into the lake said they did so because of the religious significance of the waters. Others said they were simply cooling off after a long day. Several privately admitted that alcohol may have played a role in why some of those present decided to jump in.
In addition to the lede alleging that the “FBI probed a late-night swim,” the Politico story includes the following passage firming up its scoop. It starts with a quote from a staffer for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.):
“Last year, a staffer was contacted by the Bureau [FBI], which had several questions, the staffer answered those questions and that appears to have been the end of it.”
The FBI’s questions focused on who went into the water that night, and whether there was any impropriety, according to multiple sources.
With those words, Politico opens a question of centrality to editors everywhere. Law enforcement officials pick up the phone all the time and ask questions. But at what point do those questions constitute a probe or an investigation?
That’s always a judgment call for a news outlet. In this case, it’s clear that Politico’s bar for announcing a “probe” appears to hover at industrial-carpet level. To wit:
1) In the opening of the story, Politico announces that the FBI is probing the late-night swim;
2) Politico reports that the only member of the Israel-junketing delegation to disrobe before plunging was Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.). A spokesman for Yoder is quoted in the piece saying the following: “Neither Congressman Yoder, nor his staff, have been interviewed by the FBI.”
3) If the FBI had been serious about probing this swimming expedition, perhaps it’d want to talk to the fellow who’d promoted direct contact between his private parts and the sacred waters of the Sea of Galilee. A law enforcement official tells the Erik Wemple Blog that there was “nothing” of interest in the Galilee splash.
There’s great enterprise in the Politico story. Sherman and Bresnahan enhance our understanding not only of overseas congressional trips but also of Cantor, a pivotal figure on the Hill. The story nails how Cantor was outraged about the swimming. He “was so upset about the antics that he rebuked the 30 lawmakers the morning after the Aug. 18, 2011, incident, saying they were distracting from the mission of the trip.”
Via extensive, almost maniacal reporting, Politico found out just who went in the water and who stayed dry. For example:
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) was also on the privately funded excursion, which means two of the three top House Republicans were a part of this trip. Neither Cantor nor McCarthy went swimming that night, the sources said. Some of their staff did.
Senior aides also jumped into the Sea of Galilee. They included Steve Stombres, Cantor’s chief of staff; Tim Berry, McCarthy’s chief of staff; Laena Fallon, Cantor’s former communications director and Emily Murray, McCarthy’s top health care aide. Kristi Way, a top Cantor staffer, was also on the trip.
The three tightly edited web pages show just how sourced Politico is on Capitol Hill. Highly. Not to mention how over its head it is on questions of federal law enforcement.
The Wall Street Journal’s debunking post explains in a couple of sentences just how FBI agents had stumbled into knowledge of the skinny-dipping, a dimension missing from Politico’s story:
A Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into New York Rep. Michael Grimm and his supporters led investigators to learn details of an incident on a 2011 congressional trip to Israel in which a different lawmaker went skinny dipping in the Sea of Galilee, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The Journal piles on more detail, noting that the bureau was looking at the “Israel trip and a trip Rep. Grimm made afterward to Cyprus, but that the swimming incident wasn’t relevant to the probe.” Again, that stuff is not to be found in the Politico piece.
There’s more FBI-related depravity in Politico’s reporting. For instance, it alleges that the FBI examined whether any “inappropriate behavior” took place around the shore’s edge — as if our government’s best law enforcement agents care whether this staffer or that staffer might be using a junket to get a little action. And a whole paragraph contextualizes the “probe” with this background information:
In a Congress that has already sunk to new lows in public-opinion polls, and seen a bipartisan wave of scandals, this latest controversy could only further damage that image. Since the start of the 112th Congress, former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) resigned following the revelation that he was sending naked pictures of himself to women he met on the Internet. Former Rep. Christopher Lee (R-N.Y.) quickly left office after he was caught sending a topless photo of himself to an online acquaintance. Former Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) stepped down after an “unwanted” sexual encounter with the daughter of a longtime friend. Former Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) resigned after having an extramarital affair with the wife of an aide and then trying to cover it up.
Yet if the FBI were really serious about the plunge and the carousing, its investigative focus would center on possible violations of U.S. security secrets. The FBI cares about illegal behavior, not “inappropriate behavior.”
Requests for comment to Politico editors and reporters were referred to other Politico editors, who didn’t respond.
[UPDATED (5:47 P.M.)] A Politico spokesperson says that editors remain confident in the reporting.
FBI Washington field office spokeswoman Jacqueline Maguire says, “We don’t confirm or deny our investigations.” Which is probably good news for Politico.