Bloggers Raise Red Flags Over New Republic's 'Baghdad Diarist'

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

The column in the New Republic, described as being penned by a U.S. soldier in Iraq, is filled with tales of petty, stomach-churning behavior.

The "Baghdad Diarist," writing under the pseudonym Scott Thomas, says he was "shocked by my own cruelty" as he recounts soldiers getting their kicks by running over dogs with Bradley Fighting Vehicles and playing with Iraqi children's skulls taken from a mass grave.

But now the liberal magazine, responding to questions raised online by the Weekly Standard and other conservative Web sites, is looking into whether the soldier's account in this and two earlier columns can be substantiated.

"The Standard raises some important questions about the piece, and we're investigating them," New Republic Editor Franklin Foer said yesterday. "I've been in touch with several members of the author's unit who corroborate the details under question. And the author has provided compelling responses himself."

Standard Editor Bill Kristol remains unconvinced. "Right now, it looks as if the New Republic has been the victim -- and the perpetrator -- of a fraud," he said. "Many vets and experts have raised questions devastating to 'Thomas' s' credibility. Not a single individual has come forward to confirm any aspect of 'Scott Thomas's' account. And who is 'Scott Thomas' anyway?"

Foer said he and another editor have met "Thomas," whose identity the magazine is protecting to shield him against retaliation from his superiors. He said the soldier's three columns were fact-checked, to the extent possible, before publication, and that he is now trying to resolve the critics' objections "to my complete satisfaction."

The issue of veracity is especially sensitive for the New Republic, which fired associate editor Stephen Glass in 1998 for fabrications that editors concluded had appeared in two-thirds of his 41 articles.

Foer called the soldier "an amazing resource -- a guy who's on the front lines, who has a gift for observation and can write."

Standard writer Michael Goldfarb this week called on the blogosphere to investigate, and many have tapped into experts who challenge key details of the columns. At National Review Online, columnist John Podhoretz questioned whether the writer is "the Stephen Glass of Baghdad." Blogger Michelle Malkin said the diarist's account was "punctuated with red flags and adorned with incredible embellishment."

Some of the anecdotes in the soldier's July 13 "Baghdad Diarist" column read like perfect little melodramas, although other members of his unit have told New Republic editors that they either witnessed or were told about the episodes. The magazine's editors recognize that his friends might be covering for him, according to someone with knowledge of the inquiry. Before publication, this person said, editors contacted people who have served in Iraq to ask whether the incidents sounded plausible.

The diarist described how soldiers in a mess hall had openly mocked a woman -- he wasn't sure whether she was a soldier or contractor -- whose face was severely scarred from an injury presumably suffered in Iraq: "The disfigured woman slammed her cup down and ran out of the chow hall, her half-finished tray of food nearly falling to the ground."

Scott Johnson, a lawyer who blogs at Power Line, wrote that such anecdotes sounded "highly improbable," saying: "How likely is it, for example, that American soldiers would stand for the mockery of a woman disfigured by an IED? Not bloody likely."

After inquiries by the Standard, Foer identified the mess hall as being at Forward Operating Base Falcon. Michael Yon, a respected military blogger who spent time with the unit this year, wrote: "That story about American soldiers at FOB Falcon sounds like complete garbage." Other bloggers said military personnel always wear uniforms and could not possibly be confused with contractors.

The diarist wrote of a private who enjoyed using his Bradley vehicle to crash through concrete barriers, corners of buildings "and his favorite target: dogs." He would "suddenly swerve and catch a tail or a leg in the vehicle's tracks. He kept a tally of his kills in a little green notebook."

One commenter at the Ace of Spades blog wrote: "I have been awarded the Army Tracked Driver's Badge for driving a Bradley . . . There is no way this story is true. A Bradley cannot routinely bust through concrete . . . It is loud and cannot pivot as quickly and easily as a M113 or M2a1 because of the steering system."

In describing a mass grave -- now said by the New Republic to be near the Baghdad airport -- "Thomas" wrote: "One private, infamous as a jokester and troublemaker, found the top part of a human skull, which was almost perfectly preserved. It even had chunks of hair . . . He squealed as he placed it on his head like a crown. It was a perfect fit."

In an earlier column, the diarist reported seeing a 9mm shell casing with a "square back." American Spectator staffer John Tabin wrote: "I've Googled in vain for evidence of [a] 9mm cartridge that features a 'square back.' "

As the criticism mounts, Foer says he sees an ideological agenda.

"A lot of the questions raised by the conservative blogosphere boil down to, would American soldiers be capable of doing things like the things described in the diarist. The practical jokes are exceptionally mild compared to things that have been documented by the U.S. military. Conservative bloggers make a bit of a living denying any bad news that emanates from Iraq."

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