Media critic

Deep experience with the CIA isn’t needed to appreciate the breadth of the correction that ProPublica published Thursday night. A story from February 2017 on CIA official Gina Haspel, reported the award-winning site, was wrong in a couple of respects. No, Haspel hadn’t overseen the waterboarding of suspected al-Qaeda honcho Abu Zubaida at a so-called black site in Thailand in 2002. And no, she hadn’t mocked him, either.

Just what, precisely, was ProPublica retracting? See this paragraph, from the site’s original story:

At one point, Haspel spoke directly with [Abu Zubaida], accusing him of faking symptoms of physical distress and psychological breakdown. In a scene described in a book written by one of the interrogators, the chief of base came to his cell and “congratulated him on the fine quality of his acting.” According to the book, the chief of base, who was identified only by title, said: “Good job! I like the way you’re drooling; it adds realism. I’m almost buying it. You wouldn’t think a grown man would do that.”

The backdrop for the backpedaling is, of course, Trump administration personnel maneuvers. The February 2017 story came after Haspel was placed in the CIA’s No. 2 position. And that reporting got a fresh look in and around Washington this week, thanks to the president’s move to elevate Haspel to the CIA director slot, which is being vacated by Mike Pompeo. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) declared his opposition to Haspel: “When you read that sort of the joyful glee at someone who is being tortured, I find it just amazing that anyone would consider having this woman at the head of the CIA.”

Suddenly, a lot of people are having to recalibrate their assessments of Haspel. In doing so, they’ll have to dial back revelations that hit the public sphere 13 months ago. How did these falsehoods hang around for so long? ProPublica’s correction addresses the matter. “The CIA did not comment further on the story after its publication and we were not aware of any further questions about its accuracy until this week,” notes the correction.

Remarkable: If the Erik Wemple Blog, in a highly critical post, flubs a single fact about, say, CNN or Fox News or MSNBC or the Babylon Bee, we’ll hear about it via email, via text message, via very angry phone call, via Twitter and Facebook and whatever social media pipeline can be commandeered for the purpose of seeking a correction. Here, after a national news outlet falsely portrays a woman as taunting a CIA detainee, silence.

“We heard from no one until we started reporting on possible follow up story this week,” Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica, writes in an email to the Erik Wemple Blog.

Given the subject matter, the lack of blowback isn’t so hard to explain. “They are so loath to confirm something that they believe is classified that it’s better for them from their point of view to not say anything,” says John Kiriakou, former CIA counterterrorism officer. “If they can remain silent on an issue, they always choose to remain silent.”

Yet as the original story — as well as the correction — noted, the CIA issued a strong statement before the story ran. “Nearly every piece of reporting that you are seeking comment on is incorrect in whole or in part,” read that statement. In the correction, Stephen Engelberg, editor in chief of ProPublica, writes, “we failed to understand the message the CIA’s press office was trying to convey in its statement.” How so? We asked Tofel for more beef on this particular lapse, and he referred us to the language in the correction.

Adam Goldman, who reports on intelligence for the New York Times, applauds ProPublica for its transparency and the thoroughness of its correction. Any debunking statement directly from the agency, he says, would “give me pause.” “It’s a roadblock in front of [the story]. It’s our job to get over that hurdle,” he says. “Spokespeople for the agencies in the intelligence community can raise red flags, and a big one is when they go on the record and say you’re flat-out wrong.”

Fox News’s Tucker Carlson once said, “Journalism? Find out what happened and tell your readers. How hard is that?” Incredibly, as it turns out. Let Goldman run through the complexities: In the case of the “black site” in Thailand, ProPublica and its competitors are writing about stuff that happened a decade and a half ago; there is little paper on the activities at hand; memories are faulty; and in this case, reporters are trying to nail down precisely when a CIA official ran a secret program. “This is the hardest reporting there is,” says Goldman.

Earlier this week, Goldman wrote a story for the New York Times with this lead:

WASHINGTON — Just over a year after the Sept. 11 attacks, the C.I.A. dispatched the veteran clandestine officer Gina Haspel to oversee a secret prison in Thailand. Shortly after, agency contractors in the frantic hunt for the conspirators waterboarded a Qaeda suspect three times and subjected him to brutal interrogation techniques.

Ms. Haspel’s time running the prison, code-named Cat’s Eye, began her deep involvement in the agency’s counterterrorism operations and showed her willingness to take part in the agency’s rendition, detention and interrogation program, which shaped her career. She was a rising star until that dark chapter in C.I.A. history began to emerge publicly.

He tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the original draft contained the claim that Haspel had overseen the treatment of Abu Zubaida. “It took most of the day in the reporting — after questions were asked by colleagues, ‘Do we know she was there for Zubaida?” says Goldman. After poking around, checking reports, and calling sources, Goldman found someone who told him that Haspel, in fact, wasn’t around for Zubaida. That particular detail was plucked from the story prior to publication. “By the grace of f–––ing god, we go,” says Goldman.

Correct: A February 2017 New York Times story by Matthew Rosenberg carries a new editor’s note correcting the Haspel-Zubaida connection.

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