Washington’s old-line diplomatic community once delighted in telling tales about one Arnaud de Borchgrave, a cool-named foreign correspondent who worked 30 years for Newsweek in the heart of the Cold War. There was the one about how de Borchgrave kept 14 military uniforms hanging in a Geneva closet, according to a 1980 Washington Post report. And the one about how he called Al Haig on his direct line to ask about a high-risk rescue operation. Or how he ducked in and out of 18 wars during his career.
The latest story about de Borchgrave, who went on to become the top editor of The Washington Times and still writes a column for the paper at age 85, will not add to his legend.
The Times announced late Monday that it would undertake an “internal assessment of Mr. de Borchgrave’s columns,” after allegations that he repeatedly lifted passages from reports previously published on the Internet.
The questions relate to de Borchgrave’s writing in his capacity as a columnist for the Washington Times and United Press International and as a program director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Times also said de Borchgrave would be taking a three-month hiatus from his column to work on his memoirs.
“In a body of work which includes thousands of columns and news analysis over six decades, I have paid close attention to attribution, even today in an online age, when the rules for aggregators and others are changing,” de Borchgrave said in the published announcement. “Everybody makes mistakes, and I take responsibility for mine. I will redouble my efforts to attribute with precision.”
Washington Times editor Ed Kelley said the plagiarism allegations “require attention,” but also said the venerable columnist, who ran the paper from 1985 to 1991, “has long been an asset to this organization.”
Side-by-side comparisons of the passages in question don’t speak well for this anchor of the Washington establishment. For example, a May 9 de Borchgrave column, headlined “Realism and reality in Afghanistan,” contains this passage:
“Pakistan’s army commander Gen. Khalid Rabbani even accused the U.S. of seeking to make Pakistan the scapegoat for the U.S. failure to defeat the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.”
A day earlier, the Associated Press published these words:
“In a sign of the bad blood between Washington and Islamabad, Lt. Gen. Khalid Rabbani also accused the U.S. of seeking to make Pakistan a scapegoat for its failure to beat the insurgency in Afghanistan.”
The columnist explained that the wording “came from my Pakistani associate Ammar Turabi and from the Pakistani English-language papers I read daily. I assume the AP, which I seldom read online, picked it up originally from Pakistani news sources.” When pressed on this question and notified of de Borchgrave’s statement, AP spokesman Paul Colford wrote via e-mail: “The AP story was not picked up from other sources. The story was based on an interview given to AP, specifically to AP Pakistan Bureau Chief Chris Brummit, as the story makes clear.”
On Jan. 3, a de Borchgrave column for UPI, headlined “Youth Bulge,” dealt with the emerging world of social networks. Here’s a paragraph from the report:
“Facebook is the global 900-pound gorilla of social media networks. It reaches 55 percent of the world’s global audience, accounting for roughly 75 percent of time spent on social networking sites. That’s one in every seven minutes spent online all over the world (comScore’s 10/11 data indicate).”
A week earlier, the site ClickZ.com had posted an item headlined “10 Social Media 2011 Highlights (Data Included),” which included this wording:
“Facebook remains the global 900-pound gorilla of social media networks. Facebook reached 55 percent of the world’s global audience accounting for roughly 75 percent of time spent on social networking sites and one in every seven minutes spent online globally according to comScore’s October 2011 data.”
Anna Maria Virzi, executive editor of ClickZ.com, had this to say about the echo: “I mean, come on,” Virzi said. “The author appears to be lazy and I can’t believe that he could not research this himself and even rewrite a little bit more of this so it doesn’t look so obvious.” De Borchgrave says he “picked this up” at a social media conference and “received thanks from one of the sponsors.”
De Borchgrave’s think-tank work appears to reflect similar shortcuts. A July 2007 report titled “Force Multiplier for Intelligence” contains an introduction by de Borchgrave complete with a discussion of terrorism suspects under the watch of Britain’s MI5. A story with much the same wording appeared earlier that year in a BBC news report.
If nothing else, de Borchgrave’s literary borrowing shows how differently two organizations can handle allegations of wrongdoing. In keeping with its mysterious history, the Washington Times did not return calls and e-mails on this matter. (Salon.com reported last week that Washington Times officials had known about de Borchgrave’s habits before the latest examples surfaced).UPI could not be reached for comment.
CSIS, on the other hand, examined evidence of literary overlaps and declared that it would look into the matter. “We do have in our guidelines that plagiarism is not something that’s tolerated here,” said H. Andrew Schwartz, CSIS’s senior vice president for external relations. “We’ve never had to discipline anybody for anything like this, so I think the consequences of plagiarism could vary depending on the context. They could include serious penalties.”
A sprawling information-gathering campaign, suggests de Borchgrave, kicks off each of his columns. He reads eight newspapers a day. “I pick things up and make notes of different things and then use them in my column,” says de Borchgrave.
Of the allegations that some of those “different things” sneak into the columns without proper attribution, de Borchgrave notes: “If I dropped a few quote marks inadvertently, mea culpa. Everyone makes mistakes. I will make certain the appropriate quotation marks will be there in the future.”