Why was “Fox & Friends” obsessing over a 2015 New York Times story in July 2017? Because Fox News Chief Intelligence Correspondent Catherine Herridge recently interviewed Gen. Tony Thomas, leader of the Special Operations Command, at the Aspen Security Forum. And the general said some interesting things. One of them: Thomas said his people were “particularly close” to Baghdadi via a spring 2015 raid that killed Islamic State figure Abu Sayyaf and captured his wife, Umm Sayyaf. It also netted a fair bit of intelligence.
In any case, Thomas’s contentions appear to have prompted this tweet from President Trump:
In its Saturday morning broadcast, “Fox & Friends Weekend” was all over it. Co-host Pete Hegseth, summarizing Thomas’s words to Herridge, said, “We would have had al-Baghdadi based on the intelligence we had, except someone leaked information to the failing New York Times in 2015 — this is the previous administration, and as a result he slipped away,” said Hegseth. From there, Morris took the baton, saying that the raid on Abu Sayyaf rounded up data that enabled the United States to close in on Baghdadi. Then Hegseth said that the information published in the New York Times helped the bad guys. “When that goes on the Internet, as the failing New York Times does, that can be read there and elsewhere, so he understands what they know, goes underground, goes somewhere else, changes his plans. That’s one of the other reasons it’s the failing New York Times. It’s not just failing in its credibility,” he said. “It’s failing our country.”
After a bit more Times-bashing, Hegseth said, “You need a patriotic journalist.”
Sounds like a nice, clean hit on the New York Times, except for some complicating considerations that the Times itself highlights:
1) That May 2015 raid against Abu Sayyaf? It was announced by the Pentagon — not via anonymous whispers, but via press release in the name of then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. Here’s the text:
Last night, at the direction of the Commander in Chief, I ordered U.S. Special Operations Forces to conduct an operation in al-Amr in eastern Syria to capture an ISIL senior leader known as Abu Sayyaf and his wife Umm Sayyaf. Abu Sayyaf was involved in ISIL’s military operations and helped direct the terrorist organization’s illicit oil, gas, and financial operations as well.Abu Sayyaf was killed during the course of the operation when he engaged U.S. forces.U.S. forces captured Umm Sayyaf, who we suspect is a member of ISIL, played an important role in ISIL’s terrorist activities, and may have been complicit in what appears to have been the enslavement of a young Yezidi woman rescued last night.No U.S. forces were killed or injured during this operation.The operation represents another significant blow to ISIL, and it is a reminder that the United States will never waver in denying safe haven to terrorists who threaten our citizens, and those of our friends and allies.I thank the extraordinary men and women in uniform who executed this complex and challenging mission, along with all those who supported it. Their professionalism, dedication, and valor are a deep source of pride and inspiration to us all.
In the letter requesting an apology from Fox News, New York Times’s Danielle Rhoades Ha writes, “Baghdadi would have known that Umm Sayyaf, Abu Sayyaf’s wife, was being held, if not from his own communications network then from the Pentagon’s announcement and news reports about that announcement. If the U.S. government wanted to keep the detention and likely interrogation of the wife secret, the Pentagon would not have publicly announced it.”
On June 8 of that year, the New York Times reported on the intelligence generated from the raid. The lead of the story: “American intelligence agencies have extracted valuable information about the Islamic State’s leadership structure, financial operations and security measures by analyzing materials seized during a Delta Force commando raid last month that killed a leader of the terrorist group in eastern Syria, according to United States officials.” It also noted, “Mr. Baghdadi meets periodically with regional emirs, or leaders, at his headquarters in Raqqa in eastern Syria. To ensure his safety, specially entrusted drivers pick up each of the emirs and demand that they hand over their cellphones and any other electronic devices to avoid inadvertently disclosing their location through tracking by American intelligence, the officials said.”
In his talk with Herridge, Thomas appeared to be referring to this story when he said this: “That was a very good lead. Unfortunately, it was leaked in a prominent national newspaper about a week later and that lead went dead. The challenge we have [is] in terms of where and how our tactics and procedures are discussed openly. There’s a great need to inform the American public about what we’re up to. There’s also great need to recognize things that will absolutely undercut our ability to do our job.” Thomas didn’t mention the New York Times by name, though a Washington Post report says that he has cited the Times before.
In reaction to Thomas’s criticism, Ha writes in her letter that not only did the story run more than three weeks after the raid, but there’s another consideration as well: “The Times described the piece to the Pentagon before publication and they had no objections. No senior American official complained publicly about the story until now, more than two years later.” In a separate story, the New York Times rebutted Trump’s tweet — a story in which the newspaper asked authorities for specifics on what information harmed their efforts. Here’s the response:
Asked for comment, Kenneth McGraw, a spokesman for the Special Operations Command, declined to say which information in the Times article, if any, was a source of concern.General Thomas “did not name a specific publication or a specific article in his remarks,” Mr. McGraw wrote in an email. “It would be inappropriate for me to make any further comment.”
But hey, isn’t “Fox & Friends Weekend” just picking up on the statements of a top military official? What’s wrong with that? Again, the letter from Ha: “We understand that the segment and story are based on a misleading assertion by Gen. Thomas speaking at a conference in Aspen. However, that does not alleviate Fox News of the obligation to seek information from all the stakeholders in a story. With this segment, Fox & Friends demonstrated what little regard it has for reporting facts.”
The Erik Wemple Blog has asked Fox News for its reaction to the New York Times letter but hasn’t heard back just yet. We will update when we do. A Fox News spokesperson issued this statement on the matter: “The FoxNews.com story was already updated online and Fox & Friends will also provide an updated story to viewers on Monday morning based on the FoxNews.com report. For all of their hyperventilating to the media about a correction, the New York Times didn’t reach out to anyone at Fox News until Sunday afternoon for a story that ran Friday night.”