Fox News finds itself in a familiar position.
Weeks after the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic installation in Benghazi, Fox News reported that security operators in Benghazi had been told more than once to “stand down” instead of rushing to help the U.S. personnel under siege. The mainstream media stayed away, declining to follow up on the story. It turned out to have a lot of holes.
Now, after the ruckus over the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl — in a deal that freed five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay — Fox News finds itself alone again. On Friday, reporter James Rosen alleged that Bergdahl had undergone a striking transformation during his five-year captivity. Here’s the headline of the story: “EXCLUSIVE: Bergdahl declared jihad in captivity, secret documents show.”
Secret documents? What secret documents? As Rosen carefully explained in his story, they come from the Eclipse Group, which the story describes as a “shadowy private firm of former intelligence officers and operatives that has subcontracted with the Defense Department and prominent corporations to deliver granular intelligence on terrorist activities and other security-related topics.” Based on this file, Rosen sketched out a complicated picture of Bergdahl’s time in the hands of his Haqqani captors. After Bergdahl once pulled off an escape, for instance, his captors “constructed a special metal cage for him, and confined him to it. ”
However, there were also more relaxed periods, like when “Bergdahl was reported to be happily playing soccer with the Haqqani fighters, taking part in AK-47 target practice and being permitted to carry a firearm of his own, laughing frequently and proclaiming ‘Salaam,’ the Arabic word for ‘peace.’ ” He also declared himself a “mujahid” and converted to Islam, according to the report.
To Rosen’s credit, U.S. officials have confirmed the part about the escape and the cage. The part about the conversion to Islam and the mujahid thing, however, is a bit less confirmed. Other news outlets have stayed away from this aspect of the Fox News report. A segment Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” showcased the doubts. “This report does not meet the bar,” said the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. “I’ve been a journalist for 17 years, and the sourcing on this report — I can’t think of an outlet I’ve ever been associated with that would have reported this. This is hearsay from terrorists passed through an ex-felon and then to the American people.”
Whoa, Lizza. Ex-felon?
Duane R. “Dewey” Clarridge is a former CIA employee who was once indicted for allegedly lying to Congress in the Iran-contra scandal but received a pardon from President George H.W. Bush. He’s one of those fellows who makes the intel beat so delicious: He long ago left the CIA but managed to privatize a little piece of the spy trade. As New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti notes in his book “The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth,” Clarridge raised funds following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to prove that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein did indeed hold stashes of WMD.
From there, Clarridge moved to assemble a network of informants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mazzetti reports. In cooperation with a security firm, he even managed in 2009 to corral a $6 million Pentagon contract to provide “atmospheric information” from his spy network. The guy managed his people from a residence in Escondido, Calif. “He padded around the house at all hours of the night, answering e-mails from members of his team twelve time zones ahead of him. Sometimes, he spoke to agents while lounging next to his pool,” writes Mazzetti. Clarridge used the raw intelligence from his sources and compiled a bunch of “situation reports” about events in Afghanistan.
It was just one of those situation reports that Rosen relied upon for his Friday story about Bergdahl. Here’s a snippet from the story: “Clarridge said Eclipse SITREP # 3023, dated Aug. 23, 2012 — in which a member of the Haqqani network, said to be close to Bergdahl’s captors, reported that the American prisoner had declared himself a ‘mujahid’ — was among the reports provided to [Army Brig. Gen. Robert P.] Ashley.”
The Rosen story admirably ticks off the reasons to discount this version of events:
• It reports that Clarridge’s group is a “shadowy” outfit.
• It includes on-the-record input from retired Marine Gen. James N. Mattis affirming that the U.S. military/intelligence community hadn’t received information “to suggest Bergdahl had evolved into an active collaborator with the Haqqani network or the Taliban.”
• It observes that the “situation report” relied on a source that Clarridge’s outfit hadn’t “fully vetted.”
• And it notes that the activity or conduct attributed to Bergdahl could well have stemmed from Stockholm syndrome, the condition in which a captive comes to sympathize with his captors. Brian Stelter, the host of “Reliable Sources,” noted on CNN how two Fox News journalists were captured in the Gaza strip in 2006 and forced at gunpoint to convert to Islam. In his view, that set of circumstances should have given Fox News pause in pushing out Rosen’s report. “For Fox to go off on length talking about this idea of him converting to Islam without knowing strikes me as particularly unfair, given that situation in 2006,” Stelter said.
On Twitter, Rosen has sustained some attacks from commentators, including from Lizza:
.@JamesRosenFNC and several unverified smears against someone who can’t defend himself. I thought it was unfair to include that stuff.
— Ryan Lizza (@RyanLizza) June 8, 2014
.@RyanLizza You didn’t mention the verified details. Clarridge is no felon. I caveated the jihad aspect. And [Bergdahl’s] emails mean: not a vacuum.
— James Rosen (@JamesRosenFNC) June 8, 2014
Indeed, the story is full of caveats, as listed above — so full of them, in fact, that a question must be asked: At what point does a piece of journalism caveat itself out of existence? If the outlet that provides the report is “shadowy,” its chief was indicted for lying to Congress and a source cited in the report wasn’t fully vetted, why publish?
And if Fox News really had to let this story fly, why didn’t it at least deploy a less definitive headline than “EXCLUSIVE: Bergdahl declared jihad in captivity, secret documents show”? An alternative formulation — like, perhaps “EXCLUSIVE: Documents suggest uneven treatment of Bergdahl” — yields less sex appeal but a better representation of what’s in the story.
In an interview Monday with the Erik Wemple Blog, Clarridge attested to the many ways that the Eclipse Group’s reporting has been vindicated by news outlets and official government sources. “No one knows what they’re talking about except us,” said Clarridge about intelligence-gathering activities in Afghanistan. “We operate entirely outside the wire.” He said this latest bit of information from Rosen has fetched confirmation from key U.S. government agencies, a claim that Rosen has put on Twitter as well:
.@plotsnplans Actually, we have confirmed that senior DOD/IC officials did receive the Eclipse reports and regarded then as credible.
— James Rosen (@JamesRosenFNC) June 9, 2014
As he began to discuss his communications with Fox News, Clarridge stopped the conversation to declare that it was all on “background,” a stipulation that he hadn’t made previously in the chat. When the Erik Wemple Blog protested that it had identified itself as a Washington Post reporter and that all this was on the record, Clarridge cut off the conversation.
No matter: Within a matter of weeks — perhaps months — more information will surface about the conditions of Bergdahl’s captivity — information that’ll either bolster or blow up the headline that Fox News thrust out there less than a week after Bergdahl’s release was announced. A U.S. official contacted by this blog responded via e-mail that “we have no information that supports this report.”
In the meantime, Rosen’s headline is getting re-aired on various Fox News platforms, sometimes without all those caveats the the reporter inserted into his treatment. Last night, for instance, Sean Hannity asked a member of Bergdahl’s platoon, “At this point, it’s kind of odd to hear that Private Bergdahl wouldn’t be talking to his parents. Then, of course, you hear that — the report that he converted to Islam and became a warrior of Islam. What is your reaction to all of that?”