By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007
A former consultant to ABC's investigative unit admitted yesterday that he put his name on a purported interview with Barack Obama that he never conducted.
Alexis Debat, a former French defense official who now works at the Nixon Center, published the interview in the French magazine Politique Internationale. He said he had hired a freelance journalist to conduct the interview, in which the Democratic presidential candidate supposedly said that Iraq was "already a defeat for America" that has "wasted thousands of lives." Debat said he had been unable to locate the intermediary, and the Obama campaign says no such interview took place.
"I was scammed," Debat said. "I was very, very stupid. I made a huge mistake in signing that article and not checking his credentials."
ABC demanded Debat's resignation in June after discovering that he did not have a PhD from the Sorbonne, as he claims on his r?sum?.
"I was angry with him because it called into question, of course, everything he had done," said Brian Ross, ABC's chief investigative reporter, who worked closely with Debat. "He could never satisfy us that he had the PhD. . . . I was very upset."
ABC News checked out the stories Debat had worked on -- either as an on-air commentator, researcher or source -- and found no inaccuracies, network spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. But in light of the Obama debacle, reported yesterday by ABC.com, a second review is underway. Debat had specialized in reports on terrorism and national security for the past six years.
"There are some very serious questions about exactly who he is and how he works," Schneider said. "We want nothing more than to get to the absolute bottom of that."
Debat, 35, whose doctoral thesis is posted on the Sorbonne's Web site, said he thought he had earned a PhD but that there was some "administrative issue" in which the degree "hadn't been registered correctly." He said he is suing the French university.
Debat's career seemed to be flourishing in the well-trafficked intersection of academia and the media. He directs the terrorism and national security program from a downtown office at the Nixon Center, set up by the former president shortly before his death. He wrote for its magazine, the National Interest, whose honorary chairman is Henry Kissinger.
The Nixon Center's executive director, Paul Saunders, said last night that Debat has resigned from the organization and the National Interest.
Debat also contributed regularly to Politique Internationale, a relationship, he said yesterday, that has probably ended. And he worked on high-profile stories for ABC, which hired him after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ross said Debat was "very, very knowledgeable" about al-Qaeda and such terror figures as Zacarias Moussaoui, and "his information was spot on. The stuff always checked out."
Debat last appeared on ABC in May, in a "World News" piece by Ross about the possibility of Taliban sleeper cells planning attacks in the United States. In April, Debat appeared on "World News" to analyze a foiled terror plot in Saudi Arabia, and in a "Nightline" story on U.S. ties to a group mounting attacks inside Iran.
Ross said he asked Debat for a copy of his doctorate after a French official contacted the network through the embassy here. Debat said some French officials were "trying to take me down and discredit my reporting" because they were embarrassed that he was breaking stories on CIA covert operations.
Debat said he voluntarily resigned after failing to produce the PhD and that he is cooperating with the ABC inquiry. "I welcome the scrutiny," he said. "I stand by 100 percent of my reporting."
The bogus Obama interview was exposed this week by the French online magazine Rue 89, which called him a "strange character" and raised several questions about his credibility. The magazine noted that Debat has published interviews in Politique Internationale with Hillary Clinton, Alan Greenspan and Bill Gates.
Patrick Wajsman, the founder of Politique Internationale, was quoted as saying of the Obama hoax: "We are the first victims of this affair." The magazine has removed the piece from its Web site.
Debat said he had met the intermediary, Rob Sherman, in 2003, and that Sherman described himself as a former Chicago Tribune reporter. No one with that name has had a byline in the paper in recent decades.
Sherman told him he had access to Obama, Debat said. For a payment of $500, Debat said, Sherman provided a transcript of an interview, featuring Debat's questions, that he claimed was conducted in March.
Debat said he will fight to prove that he is not a fabricator. "My entire career is at stake," he said.