One reason it is exciting to be the ombudsman here is that it is virtually certain The Post will stir up some people almost every day -- even Thanksgiving. On Nov. 28, The Post served up a front-page story that began: "The United Nations launched perhaps its most important weapons inspections ever yesterday with a team that includes a 53-year-old Virginia man with no specialized scientific degree and a leadership role in sadomasochistic sex clubs." The headline read: "Weapons Inspectors' Experience Questioned; Va. Man Is Cited as Example; Hiring Process Criticized."
The story, by investigative reporter James V. Grimaldi, focused on two themes. One involves allegations by unnamed former U.N. weapons inspectors that the current team lacks experience, that individuals are being selected in part to avoid offending Iraq and that they are being picked for this sensitive mission over some of the most experienced disarmament sleuths in the world. The other is that neither the State Department nor the United Nations ran background checks on these people, and the case of Harvey John "Jack" McGeorge, 53, of Woodbridge is held up as an example.
The story reports McGeorge's credentials from his resume -- among them a stint some 20 years ago as a Marine Corps ordnance disposal technician and a munitions countermeasures specialist for the Secret Service, as well as training last year by the United Nations as an inspector. It then reports that an "Internet search of open Web sites" conducted by The Post found that he is a co-founder of a Washington area pansexual S&M group, a former chairman of the board of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom and a founding officer of the Leather Leadership Conference Inc., which, according to its Web site, produces training sessions for the "sadomasochism/leather/fetish community." McGeorge's training seminars described on Web sites, The Post reported, involve various acts conducted with knives and ropes.
A few dozen readers complained that McGeorge's sexual activities and associations are irrelevant to his job performance and saw the story as an effort to discredit him because of those activities. "If Mr. McGeorge is unqualified, due to lack of experience or qualifications, then that is another matter. But to try to use his private life as an excuse for the article is reprehensible," wrote one reader, reflecting a fairly common view. Eric Umansky, a media writer for the online magazine Slate, called it "gratuitous and sleazy. The Post should apologize . . . and get 40 lashes."
Assistant Managing Editor Marilyn Thompson says, "McGeorge's sexual preference is of no concern to us. We began this line of inquiry to find out how one qualifies as a U.N. weapons inspector, what type of specialized training they undergo, and what kind of political and cultural instruction they must complete. In early reporting, we heard complaints from knowledgeable diplomatic and scientific sources who feared the U.N. was cutting corners and sending over trainees who lacked scientific training. The U.N. keeps the names of its trainees confidential. McGeorge called attention to himself by listing U.N. training as a credential posted on the Web. We did not seek out information about his sexual preferences. He describes them publicly in dozens of documents."
The Post's Investigative unit is among the best anywhere. It produces many excellent, well-reported, well-sourced stories and series every year. But I did not find this one up to the usual standard. It seemed thin and rushed concerning the main premise -- that the overall quality of the inspection team is suspect, which is a politically potent message at this time -- and yielded to the titillation factor in featuring McGeorge so prominently. There are 100 inspectors, and McGeorge is the only one this story focused on. One reason Investigative's stories are usually so powerful is that they get people on the record and are documented thoroughly. This one was based almost entirely on anonymous former U.N. weapons inspectors. Only one was quoted, and that quote was ambiguous. The story made an important contribution in revealing that background checks are not being made. But it didn't deliver convincingly on what it started out to do, and the dominant focus on McGeorge, and the questionable relevance of his sexual activities, seemed to me to distort what this story was about.